Friday, February 5, 2016


I've spent my entire career in urban settings.
The school where I work now is 98% Hispanic.
More than half of my students spoke Spanish before they spoke English.
Our free lunch rate hovers right around 90%. 
My students' parents work two jobs.
They build your homes
and serve your meals in restaurants.
Many work two jobs. 

And I have these two big guys living at my house.
Well actually, one just moved, 
and is living in Phoenix, 
one thousand miles away.
Trying to figure out how to be a dad, 
even though he never had one of his own. 
And both guys grew up in the school system 
where I teach, and graduated, 
supposedly "college and career ready"
but they really aren't,
and I've spent the last decade or so
trying to explain injustice
and protecting them from 
the people who are supposed to keep them safe. 

And I'm watching the presidential elections unfold
with a mix of sick-hearted fascination
moral outrage,
and mostly enormous sadness. 
This week, Langston Hughes' poem, 
"Let America be America Again,"
which I think I last read in high school
came across my desk. 
And it seemed worth sharing. 
I'm including two different youtube versions,
one with a series of paintings and photographs,
the other read by Nikki Giovanni. 
I can't figure out which parts to leave out,
so I'm including the whole thing. 

"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."

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,

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! 

Here is a slightly different version of the poem, published as an essay. 

Tricia, at the Miss Rumphius Effect, is hosting Poetry Friday today.


Irene Latham said...

There is sadness in this poem, yes, and in the world, but also HOPE! For everyone. Thinking of you and your students and those sons, making their ways in the world... thank you for sharing!

tanita✿davis said...

Oh, one of my favorites -- it's one of the best read-alouds I've ever heard.
People who protest ought to recite it aloud, especially the parts about, "it WILL BE."

Tara said...

I no longer know what to say about the current state of America...I know I must be hopeful, for that is what we aspire to as Americans, but... I'm sharing Langston's poem with my sixth graders next week, it's always a curious thing to present suburban white children this vision of what America aspires to and what America is.

Mary Lee said...


And in spite of how awful we've become, I'm with Tanita, and still focus on the WILL BE. (How else could we go on another day?)

Kay said...

Hughes could still be speaking to us today. Despite how dark things seem to be (especially with our current politics), I hope and dream of a day when all Americans can be free and have the opportunity to claim their dreams. I don't understand why some people feel so threatened when those who have been oppressed work to claim freedom for themselves. There is more than enough to go around. Bringing someone else up doesn't bring me down. It raises all of us even higher.

Linda B said...

Well said & the poem shared should be everywhere in those political places. Moral outrage is right. I am alarmed from the words of these past months, & also from those applauding. Crossing fingers, Carol, for all of us.

Unknown said...

Thank you for a large dose of lazy Saturday afternoon smack-in-the-face reality. When I taught high school equivalency Eng., we always read "A Dream Deferred" by Mr. Hughes. I often think of the options he posits in reply to the poem's first-line question, "What happens to a dream deferred?" When I saw and heard a young student read the poem (rather than "my" adults), the poem took on even more poignant import. Thanks for caring and sharing your poem and Mr. Hughes' other poem. Heavy duty stuff! Every blessing to you and the ones you more than teach:)

GatheringBooks said...

We have a lot of family and friends in the US - and we do watch the publicity about the elections unfold with a kind of morbid fascination. I'm more familiar with Hughes' shorter poems (such as Dream Deferred as noted by CB in the earlier comment). I didn't know about these longer ones, though, so thank you for sharing.