Hughes Dreams the Real American Dream

Norman Rockwell, “Spirit of America”


I have found few articles about the new Trump administration more chilling than one by Slate columnist James Bouie. It’s about the white nationalism that is driving the president and those around him. I predict I’ll be turning to Langston Hughes a lot over the next four years.

Apparently Trumpism has an articulate defender in one Michael Anton, a former George W. Bush administration speechwriter whom New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait describes as America’s “leading authoritarian intellectual.” Anton has now joined the Trump administration. Here’s what he believes:

To Anton, the rising share of the nonwhite population is a foreign invasion: “The ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle,” he writes. He describes the children of immigrants as “ringers to form a permanent electoral majority.” The racial and political implications of this argument are both clear and extreme: Anton believes the white Republican base is the only legitimate governing coalition. Democratic governments are inherently illegitimate by dint of their racial cast.

Bouie points out that Anton is not the only one in the new Trump administration with these views:

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, his former aide Stephen Miller, and right-wing media mogul Stephen Bannon occupy prominent positions in the present administration. Like Anton, they hold deep antagonism to immigrants and immigration, opposition to their equality within American society, and nostalgia for a time when prosperity was the province of the native-born and a select few “assimilated” immigrants. But these aren’t just ideologues with jobs in a friendly administration. They are the architects of Trump’s policy, the executors of a frighteningly coherent political ideology.


Now we’re faced with the extraordinary: A White House whose chief thinkers and architects are white nationalists, keepers of a dangerous tradition in our history, with an unprecedented opportunity to pull the United States back a century to an era of unvarnished nativism and prejudice. The past three weeks are likely just the beginning; we are sure to see even more action against immigrants and Muslims, even more tolerance for the worst forces in American life.

In this usage, white nationalist isn’t a pejorative; it’s the best term we have for the ideology of the Trump administration, one that gives coherence to its actions and approach. White nationalist helps us see how the expansive refugee ban is tied to the efforts to deny government benefits to legal residents and is tied to the promise by Trump to protect entitlements for those who receive them. It helps us see how his “populism” excludes tens of millions of Americans, and why he seems more interested in narrow enthusiasm versus broad popularity. And it gives a sense of what might follow in a Trump administration: not just demonization of disfavored minorities but possible attempts to expand the welfare state for the “deserving,” defined by race—a kind of welfare chauvinism. As he did during the campaign, Trump may adopt slogans and ideas from the left and right, not because he’s really a conservative or really a liberal, but because white nationalism exists outside the familiar divide. It confounds the left-right spectrum as we understand it in the United States. Trumpish policy won’t fall neatly into our old categories of liberal and conservative. Instead, it will turn on the question of what strengthens this basic notion that ours is a white nation.

We may see an all-out assault on voting rights in the upcoming months, what with first Trump and now Stephen Miller talking repeatedly about non-existent voter fraud. As we’ve seen in any number of states, “voter fraud” is just an excuse to suppress the vote of traditional Democratic constituencies, such as African Americans and the poor. I don’t think the administration will take us all the way back to Jim Crow, but it won’t be for lack of trying.

Poetry can’t hold back an aggressive president or Congress, of course, but it can help sustain us as we resist. I came across this Hughes poem in a wonderful Salon article by Isaac Rosenberg that reminds us what we are fighting for.

Poetic reminders are no small thing. “Let America Be America Again,” written in 1935 during the Great Depression, is a powerful counterargument to Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” It identifies American diversity, not American whiteness, as the key to America’s greatness.

As Rosenberg points out, in the poem

Hughes masterfully constructs a platform on which the parenthetical voice takes center stage, speaking for all the forgotten ones from all over the world who have come to America to make its promise real.

When, in his inauguration speech, Trump talked about “the forgotten men and women,” he was specifically talking about the forgotten white men and women. Hughes talks about all men and women and, unlike Trump–who is one of the leeches mentioned in the poem–he really means what he says:

Let America Be America Again

By Langston Hughes

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!

We’re already beginning to see the “rot of graft, and stealth, and lies.” I can’t do better than Rosenberg in applying the poem to our current situation:

People around the world today look to America, trembling in fear at the sight of President Trump and trembling in hope at the sight of the resistance against him. Because America — as Langston Hughes understood it — really is the collective hope and promise of the world.

Americans of all descriptions increasingly are standing up to fight for that hope and promise. Donald Trump’s notion of America is weak and puny in comparison. His notion, in a word, is a loser.

Want to make America great again? Make it reflect the vision of Langston Hughes. Make it a product of our daily collective struggle. Make it great for the least among us, for the most despised. Make it great for whomever Donald Trump would attack the most viciously, would torture, spit on, mock and ridicule. Only then will it be America for all of us. Only then will it be America at all.


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