Looking for a poem about work, for my visit to a New York high school, I came across “Let America Be America Again,” by Langston Hughes. It is as contemporary as the current flap over Rudolph Giuliani’s comments about President Obama.
The President, a graceful writer, has often talked about his love for America, as it is, as it could be. Giuliani, particularly disappointingly for a New Yorker, deliberately overlooks the President’s body of work.
Langston Hughes, writing in a time of lynching and outright segregation, begins his poem this way:
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.)
Hughes then touches on the aspirations in this country:
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.
But near the end, Hughes raises what sounds to me like a prayer of hope:
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.
The high-school class I visited had mature young people from other lands -- young women in head scarves, several young men from Asia, a young woman from Mexico about to begin an internship, a young woman from Ecuador who in two years has learned to speak English almost perfectly.
It’s Black History Month. I wanted them to share the hope I feel when I listen to President Obama, the hope I feel when I listen to Langston Hughes.
On Tuesday, Feb. 24 at 9 PM, Terrance McKnight will host a show about the pianist Hazel Scott on WQXR-FM.
And as a bonus, here is “I’ve Known Rivers,” a jazz version of Hughes’ poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” performed by Gary Bartz:
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.