The poet Langston Hughes calls us to redeem the homeland of the free
This year, July 4th can be a day to commit or recommit to a vision of America as it should be, a land of opportunity where all can thrive; where all who have been oppressed because of the color of their skin or any other aspect of their identity can pursue their dreams and be treated equitably, with the respect they deserve; where no one must cry out “I can’t breathe.”
To be sure, this was not the vision of the Founding Fathers, but the world has changed for the better, and our vision for America can be much more expansive. As the granddaughter of immigrants who could barely read English and came to this country in steerage with almost no money, I have known the privilege of education and health care and the benefits and advantages they bring. I have not been targeted by the police nor subjected to the degradations that Black colleagues have experienced, nor have I lost my health insurance or been threatened unfairly with deportation. These should not be white rights but human rights.
Ode to America
The poem, “Let America Be America Again,” written in 1935 by Langston Hughes, is almost eerily current, although some of his language would not be used today. I share it as a vision of what our country will be when we commit to make this the land where all are free. On July 4th, I will recommit to that America, the America my grandparents sought. The Black Lives Matter movement gives me hope that the dream is not dead, and the vision can be realized.
Let America Be America Again
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.”)
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.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of 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.
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!
Recognizing racism in historical icons
As we celebrate the beginning of our country, its grand, brilliant, although limited, view of freedom, and its far from inclusive vision of democracy, it is time to learn more about and question the heroes, icons and stories of our history, which often turn out to have been tainted by slavery and racism. A Washington Post story tells how Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota came to be, and describes its sculptor’s ties to the Confederacy’s Lost Cause and the Ku Klux Klan in his previous project to carve the Confederate Memorial at Stone Mountain, in Georgia. The story is familiar to anyone who knows the history of the Confederate statue that looked over our campus in Chapel Hill from 1913 to 2018, which was supported by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and others with ties to the Ku Klux Klan. I and many others grew up taking Mount Rushmore at face value, as a tribute to four great American presidents, not recognizing the exclusionary messages behind its origins. That so much of our country’s history is woven through with the warp of racism should make us understand why structural racism is so challenging but necessary to unravel. It cannot be a coincidence that the current president chose to hold his July 3 event at Mount Rushmore and without requiring masks or social distancing.
Best wishes for a safe and healthy July 4th. Wear a mask, and practice safe hygiene and physical distancing.