Analysis of Poem "Let America Be America Again" by Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes and "Let America Be America Again"
"Let America Be America Again" focuses on the idea of the American dream and how, for many, attaining freedom, equality, and happiness, which the dream encapsulates, is nigh on impossible.
The speaker in the poem outlines the reasons why this ideal America has gone, or never was, but could still be.
For the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden, the reality of day to day existence makes the dream a cruel illusion. The poem explores the darker areas of life, the history of exploitation for example, and outlines the unique struggles of those who make up America, both black and white.
Whilst pessimistic and hard hitting, the poem does have an optimistic ending and lights the way forward with hope.
Langston Hughes was going through a difficult period in his life when he wrote this poem. He knew he wanted to earn a living through writing, but couldn't sustain his efforts, despite poetry book publication, most notably The Weary Blues.
It was on a train journey through Depression-struck America in 1935 that inspired him to pen this classic plea for a resurgence of the true American spirit.
Publication followed in the Esquire magazine and Hughes went on to become a noted if controversial figure in the world of black literature, following his earlier work in the so-called Harlem Renaissance, an upbeat black artistic movement peaking in the 1920s.
"Let America Be America Again" reflects the many influences in Hughes's poetry - from the expansive work of Whitman to street language, from jazz rhythm to the steady iambic lines of earlier black poets such as Paul Laurence Dunbar.
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,
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!
Line-By-Line Analysis of "Let America Be America Again"
This whole poem is a crying out, a passionate plea for America to re-establish the Dream. It is a kind of personal hymn, a lyrical speech, to freedom and equality. To enable that plea to be heard and felt, the speaker has to take the reader through some dark times, through history, to explain just why that Dream needs to live again.
Lines 1 - 4
Alternating rhyme, repetition and alliteration are all at play in this the first stanza, almost a song lyric. It's a direct call for the old America to be brought back to life again, to be revived. Note the mention of the pioneer, those first seekers of freedom who with tremendous will and effort established themselves a home, against all the odds.
Almost as an aside, but highly significant, the single line in parentheses reveals that, for the speaker, America as an ideal just hasn't happened. For him, this romantic notion of the American Dream never has been. Why is that?
Lines 6 - 9
The second lyrical quatrain, with similar rhyme pattern, places stronger emphasis on the dream, the original vision people had for the USA, one of love and equality. There would be no feudal system in place, no dictatorships - everyone would be equal.
Note the contrast of the language used here. There is the dream and love of those who would be equal, against those who would connive, scheme and crush.
Another line in parentheses, as if the speaker is quietly reasserting his inner voice - again making the point that this America hasn't existed for him, implying that he is far from the Dream. He is dubious to say the least.
Lines 11 - 14
The third quatrain, with alternating rhyme for familiarity, highlights the outer ideals - the dressing up of Liberty merely for show, which is phoney patriotism. The capital L reinforces the idea that this could be the Statue of Liberty, the famous icon, based on a goddess, who holds the Declaration of Independence in one hand and the torch in the other. Broken chains lie at her feet.
The plea continues, to make the dream possible, to make it manifest in opportunity and equality, for all. The suggestion that equality could be in the air people breathe, means that equality should be a natural given, part of the fabric that keeps us all alive, sharing the common air.
Lines 15 - 16
The rhyming couplet in parentheses once again repeats that, for the speaker personally, equality has been out of reach, perhaps just has never existed. Same goes for freedom. (Homeland of the free - could be based on the Star-Spangled Banner lyrics 'land of the free.')
Lines 17 - 18
In italics for special reasons, these lines, two questions, represent a turning point in the poem; they are a different aspect of the speaker's identity. These two questions look back, questioning the speaker's negativity (in parentheses) and also look forward.
The metaphor of the veil has biblical connections (in Corinthians) alluding to a darkening of reality, of not being able to see the truth.
Lines 19 - 24
The first of the sextets, six lines which express yet another aspect of the speaker, who now speaks as and for, one of the oppressed, in the first person, I am. Yet, this voice also expresses the collective, articulating a mass sentiment.
And note that all types of person are included: white, black, native American, the immigrant. All are subject to the brutal competition and the hierarchical systems imposed upon them.
Lines 25 - 30
The second sextet focuses on the young man, any young man no matter, caught up in the industrial chaos of profit for profit's sake, where greed is good and power is the ultimate goal. The ugly, unacceptable face of capitalism encourages only selfishness at any expense.
Lines 31 - 38
Again, use of the repeated phrase I am brings home the message loud and clear in this octet: the system is cruellest to those who are poorest. From the farmer to the servant, from the land to the fine houses of the wealthy, for many the Dream means only hunger and poverty.
Workers become de-humanized, become mere numbers and are treated as if they are commodities or money.
Lines 39 - 50
The longest stanza in the poem, 12 lines, concentrates on the history of those immigrants who dreamt of fundamental freedoms in the first place. This is the cruel irony. Those fleeing poverty, war and oppression; those forced to leave their native lands, had this dream inside, a dream of being truly free in a new land.
They travelled to America in the hope of realizing this dream. People from Old Europe, many from Africa, all set out for a new life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (Thomas Jefferson).
More Line By Line Analysis
A single line, another potent question. The previous twelve lines (the previous 50 lines) all led to this acute point. A simple yet searching ask.
Lines 52 - 61
The next ten lines explore this notion of the free. But the speaker seems perplexed - where did this crazy question originate? It's as if the speaker doesn't know himself any longer, or the reasons why the question of the free should arise. Just exactly who are the free?
There are millions with little or nothing. When labor is withdrawn and legitimate protest arranged, the authorities counteract with the bullet. Protest songs and banners and hope count for little - all that's left is a barely breathing dream.
Lines 62 - 70
The speaker takes a deep breath and repeats the opening line, only with more emotional input.....O, let America be America again. This is a plea from the heart, this time more personal - ME - yet taking in many different types of people.
In these nine lines the reader truly gets to know the speaker's intention and demand. Freedom for all. It's almost a call to rise up and take back what belongs to the many and not the few.
Lines 71 - 75
No matter the abuse, the pursuit of freedom is pure and strong. Those who have exploited the poor and sucked out their lifeblood (note the simile - like leeches) need to start thinking again about ownership and rights to property.
Lines 76 - 79
A short quatrain, a kind of summing up of the speaker's whole take on the American Dream. A direct declaration - the Dream will manifest at some time. It has to.
Lines 80 - 86
The final septet concludes that, out of the old rotten, criminal system, the people will renew and refresh and rebuild something wholesome and sustainable. There remains hope that the cherished ideal - America - can be made good again.
Literary Devices and More Analysis
Let America Be America Again is an 86 line poem split into 17 stanzas, 3 of which are single lines, 2 of which are couplets. In addition, there are 4 quatrains, 2 sextets, 1 octet, a twelve liner, ten liner, nine liner, quintet, and a seven liner.
The layout is quite unusual. On the page the poem looks more like an extended song lyric, with quatrains followed by single lines and very short lines turning up in mid-stanza.
Let's take a closer look at the literary devices:
Rhymes tend to bring familiarity and help reinforce meaning. In poetry, there are simple rhyme schemes and there are challenging ones. In this poem the rhyming pattern starts in a conventional manner but gradually becomes more complex.
For example, take a look at the first 6 stanzas:
- abab - (b) - cdcd - (b) - bebe - (bb)
This is relatively easy to follow. There is an alternating pattern in the first 3 quatrains, with the strong full vowel rhyme e dominant: be/free/me/me/Liberty/free/me/free.
The full end rhymes leave the reader in no doubt about one of the main themes of this poem - freedom and me. A strong pairing ensures a memorable bond.
So, the first 16 lines are straightforward enough. After this the rhyme scheme gradually loses its regular pattern and becomes stretched.
- However further down the line so to speak, there are still loose echoes of the familiar alternating pattern established at the beginning of the poem.
Each of the larger stanzas contains some form of full rhyme, or full and slant rhyme:
soil/all with machine/mean and become/free with lea/free.
Slant rhyme tends to challenge the reader because it is near to full rhyme but isn't full rhyme to the ear, as in soil/all. It means things aren't clicking in full, they're a little bit out of harmony.
As the poem progresses, rhyme becomes more intermittent and tends to condense in certain stanzas, as in stanza 13, pay/today and stanza 14, pain/rain/again. The poet's aim with such concentrated rhyme is to make the words stick in the reader's mind and memory.
Literary Device (2)
Repetition plays an important role in this poem and occurs throughout. When words and phrases are repeated this has a similar effect to chanting, reinforcing meaning and giving the feel of power and accumulation of energy.
From the first stanza - Let America/Let it be/Let it be - to the last - The land, the plants, the mines, the rivers - there are repeats. Some critics have likened them to song lyrics, others to parts of a political speech, where ideas and images are built up again and again.
There are numerous examples of alliterative lines - when words with leading consonants are close together - which bring texture and interest to lines and a challenge to the reader.
In the first four stanzas:
pioneer on the plain/home where he himself/dream the dreamers dreamed/land be a land where Liberty/slavery's scars.
Enjambment, when a line continues without punctuation on into the next, keeping the flow of sense, occurs in several stanzas. Look out for the 'open' end lines which encourage the reader to not pause but go on straight into the next line.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
Tangled in that endless ancient chain
of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
That even yet its mighty daring sing
in every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
Norton Anthology,Norton, 2005
100 Essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi, 2005
© 2017 Andrew Spacey