Friday is Langston Hughes’s 115th birthday. That means it is a perfect time to remember that in 1936, Hughes wrote what is still the most eloquent rejoinder to cries of “make America great again” that anyone could hope for.
It’s a poem called “Let America Be America Again,” and it calls for a country that is open and welcoming to all, a land “where Liberty / Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath / But opportunity is real, and life is free / Equality is in the air we breathe.”
But Hughes makes it clear that the ideal the poem celebrates is one that America has never once been able to live up to. Between breathless odes to the greatness of his imagined America, he notes in dire parentheses, “(There’s never been equality for me /Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’)”
Instead, Hughes says, when disenfranchised people arrive in America dreaming of a better life, they find only “the same old stupid plan / Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.”
But he ends on a determined call to action. Though America has yet to live up to its own promise, he writes, we can and must make America not great, but just America.
The whole poem is well worth reading in full, but just to whet your appetite, here’s the final exhortation:
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
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!