Back when Donald Trump was not even the certain nominee, I heard the slogan “Make America great again.” And a voice whispered in my head, “America was never America to me.”
Such are the perils of an education: put in demagoguery and get out Langston Hughes. Let America Be America Again is the poem I mean, and it’s well worth reading in its entirety. Please do. And at the time I thought: we’re going to need something to get us through this RNC. We’re going to need Langston Hughes.
Friends, I had no idea.
I had no idea that we were going to see so many more shot in the streets this summer even before the protests during the convention start. (I hope for peace and free speech this week. I hope. The rest of this year–and some of our country’s history with political conventions–makes me very nervous.) But there’s Langston Hughes, with his stanzas reminding us that it’s like this, we’ve been here before. The Thirties were like this, the Sixties. We’re like this. America is this. We can’t say we didn’t see it coming. If we didn’t see it coming, it’s because we didn’t look.
And–one of the reasons I love this poem. One of the reasons I wanted to talk about this poem, about all of his poems. Is that it is so much more passionately patriotic than the slogan. “Make America great again” is beaten any day by “The land that never has been yet–and yet must be.” Who loves you more? The person who wants to restore you to your high school glory, or the person who thinks you can be better than you’ve ever been? Who believes in you more? The person who thinks you’ve peaked or the person who thinks you have far to go?
I know two women who had strokes in middle age. For a lot of people, that would be it, a clear sign that whatever they did next would be lesser-than, a decline. One has gone on to change how she does her visual and tactile art form for the better. The other has built on a career of being a great storyteller to find ways to be a great wordsmith as well–to find ways to make lightning bugs into lightning. Neither one did it by pretending that bad things never happened, that her health was perfect. As an individual, as a people–you can’t. You make a better way forward–you approach a dream–by acknowledging that the bad things have happened. That they have happened to you. That they are a part of you. Langston Hughes has to acknowledge enslavement of Black Americans and dispossession of the Native Americans from the land. He has to acknowledge class inequality and gangsterism and greed as part of American history. Because if he doesn’t, he can’t see his way around them to the bigger dream past them, without them. There is no Golden Age for Langston Hughes to hearken back to because he’s willing to work to build one that’s never existed before. And when he describes the dream as almost dead today, he’s willing to tell you who’s almost killed it and how.
There’s going to be a lot more about that as I read and blog about his collected poems this week. Langston Hughes has a lot of punches not to pull and a lot of beliefs he will come right out and tell you in words, not sideways or sneakily. Like: “LIBERTY!
True anyhow no matter how many
Liars use those words.” (That’s from In Explanation of Our Times, which talks about people with no titles in front of their names getting to talk. Which is going on now too I think. And how they–and Langston Hughes–would not shut up.)
And that’s worth talking about this week. Every week. But this week in particular. So come on ahead and join me, blog about it, tweet about it, whatever you like. That’s the only way we get there from here.