Born in 1902, Hughes moved from his birthplace in Joplin, Missouri, to Mexico and eventually to Cleveland, Ohio. His work as a cook, launderer, busboy and seaman were as varied as his early relocation from place to place. In 1924, his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, was published. In 1930, his first novel, Not Without Laughter, won critical acclaim. Like so many writers, Hughes claims having been influenced by other poets. In his case, it was Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman. Hughes is a considered to be one of the mainstays of the Harlem Renaissance movement of the 1920s.
As a writer, Hughes distanced himself from linking his personal experience and the common experience of Black America. It was his goal to create stories of Black Americans in ways in which their culture was lived and experienced, especially acknowledging their love of music, spirit, and language. Hughes is seen as one of the most eloquent and influential of America’s poets, essayists, playwrights and storytellers. He is regarded by many for his personal convictions and working towards peace and social justice throughout his life. Langston Hughes died in New York in 1967.
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,
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,
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!
Research and Questions for Reflection: “Let America Be America Again”
- To whom is this poem addressed?
- Who are the individuals named in the poem?
- How is the universal character in this poem addressed?
- How are the founding ideals of America addressed in the poem?
How is the dream of America seen as being unfulfilled in the poem?
- What is the hope expressed in the poem?
- How do you believe that Hughes would define the word “free” as used within the context of the poem?
- In Hughes mind, do you think America was ever truly America?
- How will America become America?
- How can we consider Hughes to be a true American?
We will take you and kill you,
We will fill you full of lead,
And when you’re dead
In the nice cold ground,
We’ll put your name
Above your head –
If your head
Can be found.
Activities, Research and Questions for Reflection:Langston Hughes: The Harlem Renaissance and the Poem, “Expendable”
- How do the lines of the poem support the poem’s title?
- How would you characterize the tone of the poem?
- What feeling(s) are you left with after having read this poem?
- What does the poem have to say about warriors in war? What does it say about those who declare war? How might you say that this poem is as relevant today as it was when it was written?
- The name of Langston Hughes is often associated with other Black poets of his time: Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and Jean Toomer. Conduct research on these writers and characterize their writings next to those of Hughes.
- Langston Hughes was very influential in shaping the Harlem Renaissance movement of the 1920s. Research the Harlem Renaissance movement and report on Hughes’ contribution to it.
- Hughes wrote poems, prose and drama. Select one of his works and write a report on it.
- In an essay write about the importance of Langston Hughes’ work. Inform your essay with selections of his writing.