Following Donald Trump’s election, a poem by Langston Hughes started trending on social media and, in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd and others in police custody, the poem has found new urgency. Perhaps it was the word again that first drew people’s attention. Decades before Trump used the word in his 2016 campaign slogan to “Make America Great Again,” Hughes published a poem called “Let America Be America Again.”
Sometimes referred to as the “poet laureate of Harlem,” Hughes was born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, and raised in the Midwest. After living in Mexico for a year, he arrived in New York in 1921 to study engineering at Columbia University. Drawn to the literary life, he joined other voices at the forefront of the Harlem Renaissance, writers such as Alain Locke, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, and Arna Bontemps. Hughes’s first poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” published in 1921, addressed the Black experience in America: “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”
Hughes left Columbia and traveled to the west coast of Africa, Rotterdam, Paris, and northern Italy, returning to the United States in 1924. In 1926, he published his first book of poems, The Weary Blues. Influenced by poets such as Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, and Paul Laurence Dunbar, Hughes embraced free verse. His collection included the poem “I, Too,” which opens “I, too, sing America,” and closes “I, too, am America.” (“I hear America singing,” his spiritual mentor Whitman had written.)
In 1929, Hughes graduated from Lincoln University, the nation’s first degree-granting historically Black college. He continued to travel widely and, through the 1930s, wrote poems, plays, short stories, and a novel. He was sympathetic to radical causes, and his work across the decade displayed a socialist rhetoric common to the era. But he never joined the Communist Party, as many of his friends may have.
Hughes published “Let America Be America Again” in an abbreviated version in 1936 and in its final form two years later in A New Song, a collection issued by the International Workers Order. The work addresses the meaning of America and offers both a critique and an affirmation of the American ideal.
It begins “Let America be America again / Let it be the dream it used to be,” then continues, “Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed.” It’s a dream of freedom, equality, opportunity, and liberty—the ideals that form the bedrock of the nation. Yet a parenthetic voice adds, “(America never was America to me).”
If you know Hughes’s work, it is tempting to read the parenthetic “me” as a victim of the long history of racial segregation and oppression. The poem anticipates this assumption, and a new voice asks, “Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? ” What follows is a list of everyday Americans: “the poor white,” “the Negro,” “the red man,” “the immigrant,” “the farmer,” “the worker.” All are carrying hope for a better future, and all have fallen victim to “the same old stupid plan / Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.” America is not America to any of them.
Given Hughes’s radical sympathies, the class analysis is not surprising. The poem laments the conditions of the Depression, with millions unemployed and on relief, and asks what happened to America, the purported “homeland of the free,” where so many have nothing left now “except the dream that’s almost dead today.”
Almost dead, yet unvanquished.
For Hughes, the United States was an unrealized, perhaps unrealizable ideal. It was a land that “never has been yet— / And yet must be,” a dreamland unlike any other country. But the nation’s failure time and again to live up to its aspirations is a profound part of the story. Whatever its struggles, the United States has always identified itself by its dreams. Dreams inspired by abstractions like democracy, justice, and rights. Dreams animated by those seeking freedom and equality. Dreams stirred by those making a new home in America and pursuing a better life. Hughes believed in those dreams, and his poem ends not with despair, but with an urgent plea:
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
Hughes would continue to think about America, asking, “What happens to a dream deferred?” in a 1951 poem titled “Harlem.” Martin Luther King Jr. had also been contemplating dreams, long before his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. King and Hughes were friends: in 1956, King recited a Hughes poem, “Mother to Son,” from the pulpit. Because of the poet’s suspected Communist sympathies (Hughes had testified before Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations), however, King publicly kept his distance. Even so, in 1967, seven months after Hughes died, he declared that although “I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes … I still have a dream.”
King must have appreciated the closing of “Let America Be America Again,” where the people are summoned to redeem the land. In a sermon first delivered in 1954, he declared that “instead of making history, we are made by history.”
The line is easily misunderstood. King was not offering an argument for why history matters; rather, he was decrying passivity and insisting on empowerment. It was a call to action. The preacher was telling his congregation that the time for waiting on dreams was over—the time for making dreams come true had begun.
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