Pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance, 20th-century American poet and social activist Langston Hughes published his verse “Let America be America Again” in the 1936 issue of the American men’s magazine Esquire. The poem is not just an aspiration of all the deprived men and women the speaker represents in their hope for America as the dreamt nation but also a lamentation of the inaccessibility to achieve that dream. The injustice does not limit itself to only African-Americans but to every citizen who came to America with a desire for a better future but endured the fallacy of it.
Let America Be America Again | Context
Despite the abolition of slavery in 1865 after the Civil War, African-Americans were not given their due status in society. Instead, Jim Crow Laws were introduced in the South a decade later to segregate the white and black populations in all spheres of life, which became unconstitutional in 1954. Though the poem is penned by an African-American poet, it raises a concern about all the marginalized and oppressed communities in the country. Hughes does not prioritize blacks in this poem but rather assimilates them into a larger community of people who were experiencing unfavorable conditions of living along with a lack of opportunities to achieve the American dream.
Let America Be America Again | Structure and Tone
Composed in first person, the speaker is a person who shares similar beliefs with the poet and expresses his anger and desires consequent to the experience and quality of life in America. There are multiple stanzas with varying lengths and indefinite rhyme patterns for most of them. The aggression in the exposing of the contemporary American scenario creates a sense of urgency in the poem that renders it the form of a public address by the speaker. The speech-like quality allows for a powerful expression and effective declaration of the need of the hour i.e. to restore America as a nation formed on the principles stated in the Declaration of Independence— Liberty, Equality, and Pursuit of Happiness.
Let America Be America Again | Summary and Analysis
Analysis, Lines 1-5
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.)
The poem opens with a desire, a wish, and a hope for America to become the America that the forefathers dreamt of as a free land with equal opportunities for growth and shelter for anyone seeking a homeland. America should become the America of the American dream which ensures prosperity and social mobility for all its citizens. But in the parenthesis, the speaker undercuts this hope with the brutal reality of the present he lives in. The parenthesis function as a literary device that tends to reveal while hiding from the main content. In this stanza, it gives an impression of the speaker whispering this truth and realization to himself from a marginalized position after proclaiming his longing for the America of his dreams. Also, the repetition of the phrase “Let it be” emphasizes the autonomy of the nation as a democracy rather than a puppet of a handful of men denying privileges to its citizens.
The rhyme scheme for the quatrain is abab.
Analysis, Lines 6-10
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 is crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
The speaker envisions America to be the dreamland that the dreamers have dreamt of as a utopian place of dwelling where love unites all, tyrannical rulers are at bay, and hierarchies are submerged. But again through the parenthesis, the speaker confronts the reality of America never operating free of class and race conflict, as a personal affair.
The rhetorical device of Polyptoton is employed in line 6 which involves the repetition of words sharing the same origin and the rhyme scheme for the quatrain is cdcd.
Analysis, Lines 11-16
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.”)
This stanza focuses on the ideals listed in the Declaration of Independence as the founding principles of the nation—Liberty, Equality and the pursuit of Happiness. Denial of false patriotism and expectation of equal opportunities for growth surface the speaker’s goals. However, the parenthesis with a rhyming couplet unveils the prevalent inequality that exists between people like the speaker and the privileged white population and the irony of freedom in his not-so-free homeland. America is bound with segregationist and oppressive laws that contribute to the destitute lives of various communities.
The rhyme scheme for the quatrain is bebe and for the couplet is bb.
Analysis, Lines 17-18
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
The italicized lines reveal the interference of another person during the speaker’s hope and reproach for America. The person interrogates the reason for such complaints and asks about the identity of the speaker. The former speaks from a position that participates in the marginalization of the oppressed, like the speaker.
The verb “mumbles” in line 17 symbolize the voice of the powerless which couldn’t be heard, or rather, denied being listened to. In Line 18, the phrase “draws your veil across the stars” clearly points to the dark and light binary as a scheme of color politics in contemporary America.
Analysis, Lines 19-24
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.
The speaker resorts to introducing himself and establishing his identity as the “poor white,” “Negro,” “red man” and the “immigrant;” becoming a representative of all the exploited communities. He is the white man who has not made it to the ranks of the rich upper class, he is the black man who is addressed with derogatory names under the institution of slavery, and he is the American native who now belonged to the category of the outcast in their own homeland and he is the immigrant who came to America for a better life. All these communities however encounter an America which is different from what it advertises to be, where power dominates and crushes the weak and people fight with each other as an act against humanity. America is no different than any other nation as dehumanizes minorities (metaphor of “dog”) and follows the “same old stupid plan” crushing the poor and the weak to reach the top of the ladder. The poem thus becomes not about everyone who has been disappointed by the way America has turned out to be instead of a black man’s lament. The repetition of the phrase “I am” acts as an affirmation of oneness in all the communities who have been slapped by the whip of injustice and ruthlessness.
This stanza follows a loose rhyme scheme of aabcbc.
Analysis, Lines 25-30
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!
The speaker discloses his youthful potential tangling in the “ancient endless chain” of capitalism, corruption, and exploitation. America is now about industrial expansion and mechanized way of life with a dearth of humanity on its land. Like the colonialists, America is too seeking to expand in all the domains, grabbing everything it can whether land, minerals, metals, human force, or money.
Anaphora in lines 27 and 28 with the phrase “of grab the” denotes the snatching quality of the nation’s way of working, especially snatching away the rights of the communities mentioned previously.
Let America Be America Again | Analysis, Lines 31-38
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.
Through the different forms of enslavement and oppression in the fields of agriculture, industrialization, and demeaning jobs of the blacks, the speaker introduces the master-slave relationship in various domains. These men are “hungry…despite the dream” referring to the inequity as well as the Great Depression of 1929. He calls to his forefathers and narrates his fate which does not lead him anywhere. Even with years of hard work and consistent toiling, the worker is still the “poorest.” The rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. Lines 31-34 trace a progression from individual representation to a collective entity of people, some of who are humble as well as mean.
Analysis, Lines 39-50
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 dream
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 speaker affirms his oneness with the man who dreamt to free America from colonization, in the ideals to have a land that will render freedom to all. His blood and sacrifice are the souls of every “brick and stone” in this nation. He also affiliates with the men who were willingly and unwillingly brought from the continent of Africa to work on the southern plantations in America with a promise of better livelihood and thus future. Not only the slaves but he is also everyone who fled from their war-torn countries and unproductive settlements to venture into America— “the home of the free.” Anaphora in line 42 “Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true” suggests the radicalism of the mission and the dream of the people who fought for independence. The motif of dream brands this poem as a precursor to the future speech by Martin Luther King Jr. titled “I Have a Dream” in 1963 where he too dreams of an America which is accommodating and holds equality as its priority.
Analysis, Lines 51-61
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.
Adopting a sarcastic tone in this stanza, the speaker investigates the notion of a free citizen and thus a free country. People who are barely surviving on relief programs and are killed when they demonstrate against injustice are surely not free. The thrust on the repeating phrase “The millions” denotes how these people are not a minority anymore. For being loyal to America and upholding all its principles, the reward they receive is an empty and dead dream. Their compliance with America in all laws and policies does not bear any economic fruit.
The rhyme scheme for these lines is abcbdedebb.
Analysis, Lines 62-69
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 speaker wears his cloak of hopefulness once again and wishes America to transform into the land which it has not been able to become yet but must be as the ideal. The italicized “every” is an emphasis on the principle of equality and inclusion. The communities that the speaker is speaking for have created America and thus their hard work and patience deserve the land they dreamt of. He takes an agency and a right over his country when he claims “The land that’s mine…” Lines 67-68 employ anaphora through “whose” to put forward the otherwise ignored men and women, and to also bring to light their persistence in hope of a better America.
The rhyme scheme for this stanza is abccdeee.
Let America Be America Again Analysis, Lines 70-74
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,
Now the speaker is resolute in his mission and does not pay heed to anyone addressing him with names or derogatory remarks. The determination to bring back America from the people i.e. the rich white folks who “live like leeches,” (simile) will fight all the obstacles.
Analysis, Lines 75-79
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
The speaker confesses outrightly about America’s indifferent, ignorant and prejudicial stance towards him and all the other people like him but he vows to let America recognize him as its citizen and a part of it. The fearlessness and courage for admittance are remarkable and these lines are inspiring at their best.
Analysis, Lines 80-86
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!
An America free of crimes, an America free of lies, and an America that glows with its natural and scenic beauty—this is what the speaker ends his poem with. He progresses from first person singular ‘I’ to the plural ‘we’ to convey the power of unity that can redeem the otherwise lost America. Everyone needs to work together to achieve a common goal. The last stanza uses alliteration in multiple lines such as “rack and ruin,” “rape and rot,” “great green” and “America again,” concluding the poem with the grand image that America has always exhibited and now should mold into one in truth.