Three Great Americans You Need To Know About, Part One: Langston Hughes

Poetry is not something that most people read. Let’s be honest, when was the last time you, or anyone you know, spend a quiet evening curled up with a new book of poetry? Most people reach for something other than poetry when they want something to read, but this need not be the case.

Poetry is the good stuff, in my opinion. It is the concentrated flavor packed pieces of literature that are diluted in literature. Poetry gets you to a place, moves you, and leaves you thinking about what just happened, all in a few lines or stanzas.

One of my favorite poets is Langston Hughes. You probably know his poetry, even if you don’t know him by name. He is kind of a big deal in poetry, being one of the greats of the Twentieth Century.

This is the first installment of the Great Americans Series. If you enjoy this post, check out Leadership Secrets from Great Presidents for Business here.

Here are a few things you need to know about Langston Hughes:
  1. Langston Hughes wrote the poem Let America Be America

  2. Langston Hughes criticized America through his poetry

  3. Langston Hughes invented Rap Music.

  4. Langston Hughes defined what it means to be an African American artist.

First, you need to know that Langston Hughes, the great poet of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote about this white patriotism in his poem Let America Be America.  The poem has been called the antidote for the Trump Presidency.

Second you need to know that this poem is a critical analysis of America, and is not for the faint of heart. Hughes pulls no punches. He loves America too much to mince words or to slather on the platitudes of praise.

Hughes was a great poet of the first half of the Twentieth Century, who penned many classics of poetry. Often he expressed the experience of living in a world dominated by white culture, blinded by the privilege of not knowing what it is to be different, treated lesser, or made to feel a constant tinge of fear. His poetry brought that experience to the attention of whites, revealing for them that all was not equal in America.

Third, you should know that he invented the musical form known today as rap music. Hughes often would take his poetry into the jazz clubs of Harlem in the 1920’s and read his works to a drum beat on stage. This early form of spoken word rap music gave birth to the African American art form that has so swamped the music scene. Indeed, Hughes would be shocked to hear that Kanye West, who made millions off rap music, would dare to embrace the politics of marginalization that is championed by our current leader.

Hughes portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.

Hughes described the role of the “Negro Artist”, and Kanye would be wise to read it carefully.

Hughes wrote,

But, to my mind, it is the duty of the younger Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering “I want to be white,” hidden in the aspirations of his people, to “Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro–and beautiful”?[1]

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be 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.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

langston-hughes-hires-cropped-3In these few lines Hughes reveals exactly the problem our nation faces today. Many who profess to love the nation do so with willful blindness for the rest. The nation is for them, on their terms, and anyone who says otherwise is suspect.

While moral equivalence is an interesting political philosophy, naturally it presents obvious problems for anyone who would advocate that all sides have equal merit. It is, as the President once remarked, that there “are good people on all sides.”

Hughes here explains that the land of the free is often for others, not for him. He represents the plight of African Americans in our land, who have so long been denied opportunity and equality, both ideals of the nation enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

Hughes continues,

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

Langston Hughes could be writing directly to Trump today, except that this poem was written in 1935. Here Hughes evokes imagery of all those who have not benefited, but suffered from the United States and her growth.

Hughes poem continues, as if an answer to that urge to turn inward. Hughes reminds us of our white privilege…

The free?

Who said the free?  Not me?
Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

The dream of equality seems on the decline for many, especially African Americans and Latinos. Trump has spoken about the need to violently strike down those who would speak out, and shoot those he feels does not belong.


Hughes continues:
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,

O, yes,
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!
Make America Again!

Hughes calls out to us today from an American long past but never changed. Trump calls out to his supporters to “Make America Great Again.”

I think that Hughes is more accurate when he tells us to “make America again!”

He says this because we have never made America what is is supposed to be. We have never made America live up to the promise of its founding creed, that all men are created equal.

We need to continue to take a knee in protest if we truly love this country.

Those who expect a blind patriotism of all are not true patriots.

They allow for the shortcomings of the nation. They accept when we fall short of what makes America great. They do not love the country enough to make it better. Those who know what America can be and expect more of it are the real patriots.

This is the citizenship education that students need to learn in school.They take the knee to call for America to be all that she can be, and never sing blindly a song which has no meaning unless it means the same for all Americans.

When it does, then we should all sing in unison and in unity.

[1] Excerpt from Langston Hughes

Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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