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Friday, May 10, 2013

Appalachian Dreamin' and Langston Hughes




"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,
America!

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!

 
by Langston Hughes
 

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes (1902–1967)  was first recognized as an important literary figure during the 1920s, a period known as the "Harlem Renaissance" because of the number of emerging black writers.

Hughes turned out poems, essays, book reviews, song lyrics, plays, and short stories. He edited five books of African American writing and worked with Arna Bontemps on another and on a book for children. He wrote some twenty plays, including "Mulatto," "Simply Heavenly," and "Tambourines to Glory." He translated Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish poet, and Gabriela Mistral (1889–1957), the Latin American Nobel laureate poet, and wrote two long autobiographical works (a biography about oneself).

As a newspaper columnist for the Chicago Defender, Hughes created "Simple." This enduring character brought his style to perfection and solidified his reputation as the "most eloquent [fluent and persuasive] spokesman" for African Americans. The sketches of Simple, collected in five volumes, are presented as conversations between an uneducated, African American city dweller, Jesse B. Semple (Simple), and an educated but less sensitive African American friend.

The sketches that ran in the Defender for twenty-five years are varied in subject and remarkable in their relevance to the universal human condition. That Simple is a universal man, even though his language, habits, and personality are the result of his particular experiences as an African American man, is a measure of Hughes's genius.

"I am telling you," Simple says in one grand, sweeping pronouncement about the Negro's dilemma, the white man's guilty feelings, "life is liable to kill us before death does."

It was suggested to Simple that -- to hear him talk -- if he had lived in the Garden of Eden the world would still be Paradise, and man would not have fallen into sin.

"Not this man," said Simple. "I would have stayed in that garden making grape wine, singing like Crosby, and feeling fine! I would not be scuffling out in this rough world, neither would I be in Harlem. If I was Adam I would just stay in Eden in that garden with no rent to pay, no landladies to dodge, no time clock to punch -- and my picture on a Sunday school card. I'd be a real gone guy even if I didn't have but one name -- Adam -- and no initials."
     
Hughes received numerous fellowships (scholarships), awards, and honorary degrees, including the Anisfield-Wolf Award (1953) for a book on improving race relations. He taught creative writing at two universities; had his plays produced on four continents; and made recordings of African American history, music commentary, and his own poetry.

He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. His work, some of which was translated into a dozen languages, earned him an international reputation. Forty-seven volumes bear Hughes's name. He died in New York City on May 22, 1967.
 
Early Criticism

Hughes and his contemporaries had different goals and aspirations than the black middle class. They criticized the men known as the "midwives" of the Harlem Renaissance: W. E. B. Du Bois, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Alain LeRoy Locke, as being overly accommodating and assimilating eurocentric values and culture to achieve social equality.

His poetry and fiction portrayed the lives of the working-class blacks in America, lives he portrayed as full of struggle, joy, laughter, and music. Hughes and his fellows tried to depict the "low-life" in their art, that is, the real lives of blacks in the lower social-economic strata. They criticized the divisions and prejudices based on skin color within the black community.

Much of Hughes's early work was roundly criticized by many black intellectuals for portraying what they thought to be an unattractive view of black life.

For example, here are critic Estace Gay's comments on Hughes's work Fine Clothes to the Jew:

"It does not matter to me whether every poem in the book is true to life," Gay wrote. "Why should it be paraded before the American public by a Negro author as being typical or representative of the Negro? Bad enough to have white authors holding up our imperfections to public gaze. Our aim ought to be [to] present to the general public, already misinformed both by well meaning and malicious writers, our higher aims and aspirations, and our better selves."

Commenting on reviewers like Gay, Hughes wrote:

"I sympathized deeply with those critics and those intellectuals, and I saw clearly the need for some of the kinds of books they wanted. But I did not see how they could expect every Negro author to write such books. Certainly, I personally knew very few people anywhere who were wholly beautiful and wholly good. Besides I felt that the masses of our people had as much in their lives to put into books as did those more fortunate ones who had been born with some means and the ability to work up to a master's degree at a Northern college. Anyway, I didn't know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren't people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too."

 

 
The Appalachian Connection
 
The charge for native people to effect change is apparent in "Let America Be America Again." Although the title of the poem may seem to connote asking the reader's permission to allow America "to be the dream the dreamers dreamed," the word let denotes "to cause to" or "make" as in this sentence: "Let the news be known."
 
This poetic work echoes the challenge for present-day Appalachian people. It is they who must create or "make" America in their homeland. "America never was America to me" is a cry heard across Appalachia, a cry of inequality and injustice from those who have fallen into poverty, joblessness, and unhealthy living conditions.
 
Hughes writes of the poor -- white, Native American, African American -- who must find new vision and take determined action in order to revive their manifest dreams:
 
"O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!"
 
When rich, tyrannical liars, thieves, and criminals use certain conditions created by poverty to destroy the hope of the common people to overcome overwhelming odds, these oppressed folk lose their strength and will. In essence, the people lose all freedom. Instead, they become slaves in America held in bonds forged by the greedy and the powerful -- both are forces that kill the American Dream.

Unless the enslaved, themselves, rise up and fight to break the chains, those who dominate will profit and succeed as they continue to grind their boots on the throats of the unfortunate. The masters feel justified to crush the "nigger," the "hillbilly," the "illegal alien," the "addict," the "whore," the "homeless," the "dirty" and the "different."
 
"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,
America!"
 
I hope reading Hughes's "Let America Be America Again" allows you to feel indignity but also gives you vital inspiration. I am sure we can better ourselves and "redeem" our Appalachian communities; however, I am just as sure that little help from the critics outside our area will help us accomplish new dreams. "We" are the "people" responsible for "our" fate. And, Langston Hughes also questioned of a "Dream Deferred" -- Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore – And then run?"

Let us begin a new dream... today.
 
"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!"
 


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