A Poet’s Wishful Thinking and Our Horrid Reality : “Let America Be America Again”

Through the century there have been many great poets. These have been Ink masters that paint pictures of what reality should be, is, and is dreamt to be. Among these artists, we specifically commend Langston Hughes for his contributions to poetry. He was a visionary man with the ability to speak into our current reality, and yet be current to his own time period. Hughes comments on major issues in his poetry. Specifically in “Let America Be America Again”, Hughes begins to formulate and dissect his thoughts on the bare state of corruption.  Moreover, Hughes explores the blurred lines between “we” as a society and the “me” in society.

From the very opening of the poem, we are presented with the narrator’s internal conflict of what America was and what America was to him. In other words, the narrator begins to establish how society as a whole has overpowered his own voice which suggests that his personal identity was ignored and even lost. In many ways, the narrator has almost become a means to an end and only exists within this binary. This is evident when the narrator’s true opinion or voice is only observed in parenthesis. Using parenthesis minimizes the narrator’s voice, moreover it begins to echo Marxists beliefs.

The tone and meaning of the poem quickly establishes that the narrator is part of the inferior class. While it may be tempting for the audience to quickly assume that Hughes is blaming the superior, or what Marxists would call Bourgeoisie, of being tyrannical, by the end of the poem we discover that the narrator is the true tyrant. While the narrator clearly establishes that he is a part of society, he recognizes that to an extent his personal identity is nonexistent, but understands that his personal identity does exists within the binary. By the time we reach the 8th stanza, the narrator’s voice is no longer isolated with parenthesis, yet the narrator verbalizes the role he has taken:

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.

This is significant because the narrator’s complacency drives him to keep the “dog eat dog” system running. In this stanza, the narrator admits to his tyranny, and in the following stanza begins to explain his reasoning. Moreover, the narrator begins to explain how he, like the Bourgeoisie, is governed by the power of material and power. Yet, the narrator is unwilling to take responsibility of his complacency which is evident in the 13th stanza when the narrator presents a series of rhetorical questions. In Marxists theory, the peasantry class deflects their complacency by blaming the Bourgeoisie’s tyrannical rule. However, this binary can only exists if one group is filled with complacency while the other governs. Hughes echoes Marxists theory throughout the poem to unmask the root of disguised corruption which is often found in the blurred line between “we” as a society and the “me” in society.

We commend Hughes on his work because of the way he depicts a timeless picture of the same problem America still faces today, particularly in the upcoming 2016 political events.

 

Let America Be America Again – Poem by Langston Hughes

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.”

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, 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.

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,
America!

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!

Double Consciousness Through Time Travel

 

Often times, when people think of science fiction, they think of stories about aliens invading earth or robots taking over. Often times, these different story lines are creative reflections which embed the underlying fears of society. Many of these fears include, our over  dependence on technology, or the new ways we interact with one another through social media. However, most people  probably do not think about  W.E.B. Du Bois’ theory on double consciousness. While this may not be an urgent  subject to some,  double consciousness is becoming more and more relevant because of the exponential globalization seen in our world today. As a result, movies and stories will echo Du Bois’ theory.One example is Octavia Butler’s Science fiction novel, Kindred. Butler was able to portray W.E.B. Du Bios’ theory of double consciousness by using the concept of time travel.

In Octavia Butler’s novel, Kindred, the main character is named Dana. Dana is a modern 20th century  African American women who married a white man named Kevin Franklin. Dana and Franklin are in the midst of transitioning to their new home. Suddenly, Dana begins to feel dizzy and blacks-out. When Dana recovers consciousness, she finds herself in Maryland and discovers she has time traveled to the 1800’s. When she travels back in time she has to face some of the situations that other African Americans had to live through as slaves. During this time, she was able to witness the cruelties of slavery. To Dana this is a big transition. Dana is a modern 20th century African American  women who has never experienced slavery, and is now forced to take on a new identity as a black slave living in the 1800’s.

Butler uses time travel to highlight Dana’s internal conflict and her double consciousness. Dana, as a 20th century African American women, constructed her identity and her thoughts on slavery according to a modern ideology. However, it was not until Dana experienced slavery that she was truly able to understand more in depth what it meant to be a black slave. Moreover, Butler uses Dana to exemplify the psychological complexity that many multicultural or biracial individuals deal with. In many ways, this makes the novel, Kindred, a very important novel. This novel has allowed us to use a popular genre to bring awareness to these heavy topics (Slavery and Double Consciousness) in a way where all audiences can learn, while still enjoying an entertaining science fiction novel.

 

 

 

 

 

Lets Not Forget

Dear Mr. Singh,

Every major civilization that has ever existed has probably faced some sort of social issue. Each civilization has had to come up with answers for questions of equality and the justifications of hierarchies. We are not the exception Mr. Singh, even though we are The United States of America; we too have had to face these questions. We too have had our fair shares of civil struggles. We have come a long way from annihilating slavery, but even after slavery we too must address other issues that also come along and linger with integration. For this reason, books like Why We Can’t Wait have become more and more important. We may not have slavery, but our population keeps growing diverse. The more diverse we become, the more we must examine our integration and make sure that we are not “separate but equal”, rather united and represented.

In Why We Can’t Wait Martin Luther King Jr. goes into great detail explaining the difficulties that African Americans faced because they were not truly equal. Segregation and inequality was a form of slavery. In this book ,he begins to explain that this notion of separate but equal was a deceiving notion because African Americans were separate but never equal. Aside from the Jim Crow laws that enabled segregation and inequality, this underlying mentality of not being one united nation with truly equal representation was creating a false hope and a wishful society. That is to say, Martin Luther King Jr. recognized that being separate but equal was a form of tokenism. He understood that African Americans would never be able to truly be proud of something because they were never given the true opportunity to truly achieve things and be great until they were equal. This is not to say that there were no great African Americans, rather to point out that there was a false sense of achievement. For example, every African American should have had the opportunity to go to an elite school. While this was a theoretical truth, the reality was another. Therefore, there was one only James Baldwin rather than 50 or 60.  James Baldwin was praised because he overcame many obstacles, but is that to say that there were only a handful of African Americans with talent? No. There were probably hundreds of talented African Americans.

While this seems to only affect the African American community, it affects everyone in society. In recent times, we have banished things like the Jim Crow laws but we must make sure that our pop culture stays pure from these prejudice ideologies. That is to say, we often hear about how certain cultures experience informal segregation. For instance, we often classify neighborhoods this way: “Mexico town” or “Mini Cuba” or “Black neighborhood”. While we may simply be observing trends, we must be reminded of the fine lines between observing trends and detecting segregation and signs of tokenism. Its books like Why We Can’t Wait that reminds us (as a society) the importance of constantly taking a stand for unity and equal representation in all aspects. Like Martin Luther King Jr. points out, socioeconomic factors are strong influences. It may have been African Americans feeling the pressures of prejudice, but any group is susceptible if we forget.

Sincerely,

A.S.C.

What it Means to be Simply Human

James Baldwin

We often read about the struggle that African Americans endured during slavery. In such works, we hear about the harsh realities of slavery and the life struggle those individuals faced. Then, we have writers like W.E.B. Du Bois and James Baldwin. These writers are particularly interesting because they explore the aftermath of slavery. Both of these writers explore the psychological and social imprint left behind by slavery.   W.E.B. Du Bois introduces and expands on   ideas like the Veil and Double-Consciousness.  He explains that the Veil is the imaginary blanket of social inequality that still hung over many African Americans, even after the Emancipation Proclamation. Du Bois talks about how the freed slaves are left with a double consciousness because they are neither Americans nor true Africans and are told what they ought to be.

These ideas are also echoed by James Baldwin. What is particularly interesting is Baldwin’s personal life. James Baldwin was an African American who wanted to write. He was discouraged by his father’s apprehension. Even so, James Baldwin pursued writing. Around the age of fourteen, James Baldwin became involved at church in order to avoid the streets of Harlem. He would preach and write sermons. This was a crucial moment in his life because it prepared him, in many ways, to become a writer. He had a profound understanding of what religion meant to the African American community, but also what it meant for the White community. However, his passion for reading and writing led him to really approach religion with an analytical eye. James Baldwin was able to lift the Veil that Du Bois talked about and shift his perspective and life style. James Baldwin began to explore the true meaning of love and identity.

In his book, The Fire Next Time, he talks about how Christianity gave the African American hope, but it many ways it harbored the doctrine of hate. James Baldwin understood that when the bible mentioned that one must love their neighbor, it was not discriminating against color. Therefore, the apprehension and anger that many African Americans had towards the White community was not in accordance with Christianity. However, this idea did not end there. James Baldwin stressed that every idea was a double sided coin. He recognized, like Du Bois, that slavery was really a binary. James Baldwin discovered that an underlying question was really about the definition of love. This was something that he really sought out, he himself being a homosexual African American male. That is to say, James Baldwin understood what it was to be the “other” and really questioned the relationship between freedom, love, and identity. He viewed love and identity as something that is universal to humans as a whole. He recognized that the aftermath of slavery, the veil and double-consciousness, was something that affected the community as a whole. James Baldwin realized that at the bottom of these different conflicts, the way in which we define love was important and essential because it defines who we are as humans.

Fredrick Douglass a Narrative to Remember

Reading, both The Narrative of the Life of Frederick and My Bondage and My Freedom, side by side is very interesting; mostly because while they are about the same person, Frederick Douglass, they reveal different things. In The Narrative of the Life of Frederick, we are given a narrative rather than an expository of his life. This is important to keep in mind because while the author’s point of view, the author being Frederick Douglass in this case, is implied it is not always explicitly expressed. That is to say, that the primary focus of the autobiography is the events themselves. In this autobiography the audience is invited to visualize the experiences that Frederick Douglass encountered. The tone allows the audience to sense what Frederick Douglass felt. The actual language used in the autobiography also gives the audience an insight on Frederick Douglass’ view points and perspectives. For example, Douglass pleads God to “Save me! God, deliver me! Let me be Free! Is there any God? Why am I a slave? I will run away”. Here this portion of the text is interesting because it shows his attitude rather than simply stating what happened. One could conclude that this Frederick Douglass wrote this piece with his audience in mind. Perhaps Fredrick Douglass did not want his audience to simply read a series of events; rather Fredrick Douglass wanted to evoke thoughts and emotions in his audience.  He wanted to bring to life his experiences and emotions in a way that would captivate the audience.

This is interesting because we see how Frederick Douglass’ approaches shifts in My Bondage and My Freedom. In this autobiography Frederick Douglass shares his experiences but is more concerned with explicitly sharing the details of the cruel events.  That is to say, My Bondage and My Freedom, resembles an expository rather than a narrative, even though both autobiographies are accounts of his life. This becomes more evident when comparing the same section used before as an example from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick, to the equivalent section in My Bondage and My Freedom: “During the night, I heard the step of a man in the woods. He was coming toward the place where I lay. A person lying still has the advantage over one walking in the woods, in the day time, and this advantage is much greater at night.” Notice how in this account the language used is more formal. Notice how there is no dialogue included and it completely leaves out what Frederick Douglass was thinking or feeling. Instead, this account simply provides the details of the events.

In general this is particularly interesting to me because it brings up many questions about the author. One could ask: why would this shift occur? One could begin to wonder, what type of response Frederick Douglass wanted from his audience? We could also begin to wonder if there was a different response from the readers, what was different, and why? There are endless possibilities!

Education: Frederick Douglass’ Catalyst

Frederick Douglass

Fredrick Douglass

I think is it interesting that Frederick Douglass was very bold in his writings. Unlike others, like Jupiter , who have used religion as a hope, Frederick Douglass claims that the oppressing American society uses religion as aHammon mask; Frederick Douglas clearly states that “By a principle essential to Christianity, a person is eternally differenced from a THING” (Douglass, 1).  Frederick Douglass clearly mentions that religion does not support slavery; moreover, the bluntness used in this writing suggests that Douglass’ was using these statements as a way of “calling out” the “white” community for being hypocritical. Frederick Douglass then goes on and implies that not only is religion a pious mask, but he also states that the fact that there are African Americans who have “illustrated and adorned our common country by their genius, learning and eloquence” (Douglass, 5). In other words, the fact that individuals, like himself, are able to overcome the daily obstacles faced as a slave and still contribute to society, further proves that African Americans are not, by any means, inferior! Frederick Douglass valued education because he understood that excellence and achievement directly contradicted slavery. Therefore, Frederick Douglass thought that depriving slaves from receiving an education was crippling to the African American community.

Fredrick Douglass attributes this enlightenment regarding education to his experiences at the plantation. Witnessing firsthand the cruelties that many slaves endured, left Frederick Douglass with mental scars that would stay with him forever. One example was when Frederick Douglass witnessed a slave mother and wife named Nelly whipped till her back was drenched in blood. From an early age Frederick Douglass was taught that “God was good, and that He knew what was best for me” . Even though Frederick Douglass was young the cruelties that he witnessed sparked doubt. This doubt was the catalyst that made him eventually realize that if slaves had the opportunity to become educated things would be different.  They would have the opportunity to think for themselves. Slaves would no longer be helpless because of their ignorance.  Instead they would be able to contribute in society and be equally sophisticated. Education would allow salves to recognize the tyranny of slavery. Fredrick Douglass realized that the main strategy used to oppress slaves, were to keep the enslaved population ignorant.  This is why many of the slave owners prohibited their slaves from learning how to read and write. In fact, most slaves would get severely beaten if caught trying to learn how to read. In many ways, this is why music was important. Music was the closest thing to writing that slaves had to express themselves. In many ways, music was a spoken literature. This allowed them to express their hardships and even communicate an idea to a bigger crowd. Often times Negro Spirituals would contain metaphors that expressed the harsh conditions many slaves endured. Religious hymns expressed hope, even if it was a higher spiritual hope. Music gave slaves an outlet to express themselves without catching the direct attention of their slave masters. In other words, music was discreet enough for it to become a medium for expression!

True Blooded Prince

Many may be unaware of who Venture Smith was. He is not talked about in most History classes but he was an extraordinary historical figure. He was one of the few African-American slaves to buy his freedom as well as his family’s freedom. This alone makes him an extraordinary figure! This was a big milestone because it shows how Smith took a different approach towards slavery. History suggests that the only way an African-American slave is freed is through revolution. While this was definitely a part of slavery abolition, Smith’s story really sheds light on the fact that freedom through legal means was possible. In many ways, Smith’s story shows how freedom is something everyone should fight for because it is worth it. Some may say that Smith was obsessive about money and resources. However, Smith was more concerned with power. That is to say, Smith understood that if he was going to be successful in gaining freedom, he would have to abide by the judiciary system and use the system to his advantage as best he could.

Perhaps this understanding was aided by the memories of Smith’s father. I think it is interesting that Smith’s father was a prince. This is significant because Smith was influenced by a person who needed to understand the importance of a governing system and the importance of resources. Smith’s father understood that freedom was something that the governing leaders had to protect and fight for. This was evident when Smith writes about how his father negotiated with the enemy for time and peace. As a leader, Smith’s father had to be a person who created new paths and led people. This is very important to take into consideration because Smith’s father’s position is something that defines the type of life Smith had as a child. Even though Smith may not have had an extensive relationship with his father because his father died at an early age, those around him that took care of him treated Smith accordingly. One example would be when Smith’s mother dropped him off at a farm to work for a year. This was important because this pushed him to grow up and showed him that as the son of the prince he needed to step up to the plate. Perhaps if he was just another boy in the village he would have starved and died, but as the son of a prince his mother took off and left him. A year later, his father goes and sends someone for him. It almost seemed like this was him fulfilling his duty as part of the royal family.

These types of experiences shaped who Smith became.  Even as a young boy, Smith was taught that wealth was a source of power and that people had to fight and protect what was rightfully conquered. We can see how later in Smith’s life these taught notions were practiced. Perhaps it was this understanding that Smith talked about money so much. He understood that money would give him legal power. He understood that his freedom and his family’s freedom would cost him. While, it seems like Smith may have been distant with his father, Smith’s actions show how much of his father’s character is really reflected in his own. As a whole, it also shows how Venture Smith did not sit around waiting for a revolution to help set him and his family free; instead, he fought for his own freedom and conquered his obstacles as a prince would.

Boldness Disguised in Poetic Beauty

In my earlier post about Jupiter Hammons writings I talked about how Jupiter Hammon used religion as a platform where the impoverished classes of society, including slaves, would now stand equally next to the wealthy classes of society. In these next set of readings which include, “To The University of Cambridge in England”, “To The King’s Most Excellent Majesty,” “On Being Brought From Africa to America,” & On The Death of The Rev. George Whitfield”, these ideology is still supported. However Phillis Wheatley’s tone shows a complete shift and contrast to Jupiter Hammon’s tone. Jupiter Hammon consistently uses a sophisticated poetic form and structure but the images and language that Wheatley used were much more provocative! In previous works, Jupiter Hammon uses very common religious examples to softly jab society about the social conditions and cruelties seen during that time period. However, in “To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty”, Phillis Wheatley uses bold and more direct language. While both authors have great techne in their writings, Hammon softly jabs society with subtle religious depictions, while Wheatley becomes bolder with her images. One example is when she writes:

Great God, direct, and guard him from on high,

And from his head let ev’ry evil fly!

And may each clime with equal gladness fee

A monarch’s smile can set his subjects free!

 

Here in this poem we can clearly see how Phillis Wheatley felt strongly about anti-slavery. Later in the poem, “On begin brought from AFRICA to AMERICA”, she even compares the African-American community to Cain. It is interesting that she uses this reference because according to the bible who ever hurt Cain, which was casted out for murdering his brother, would be avenged by God. This metaphor is bold; moreover it serves as a threat to the social oppressor, The Anglo-American community. Phillis Wheatley recognizes that she as an individual may not be able to avenge the oppression experienced by the African-American community, but is still bold enough to say that the oppression will be avenged even if it is at a religious spiritual level by a higher being.

 

Phillis Wheatley also brings equality between both the African-American community and the Anglo-American community in “ON the Death of the Rev. Mr. GEORGE WHITEFIELD 1770”. In the poem we see how   Phillis Wheatley talks about an impartial savior. In this section   Phillis Wheatley writes: “Take him my dear Americans… take him, ye Africans, he longs for you, Impartial Saviour is his title due”. Again, she solidifies this idea that on a religious spiritual level, African-Americans and Anglo-Americans are on an even plain field.

 

During my initial readings of   Phillis Wheatley, I knew these works were significant because of the eloquent writing. The religious metaphors were complex and carried depth. I could tell that   Phillis Wheatley valued her work, moreover her craft. As I kept reading I soon realized that she used her craft to “edit” or disguise her boldness. She was a bold writer. While Wheatley’s writings may not come across as bold to the 21st century reader, we have to consider that for the time period, this was a bold move from her part and a risky one. She was bold and knew how to disguise her bold opinions with eloquent writing and beautiful imagery.

Phillis Wheatley

Thoughts on Jupiter Hammon

Thoughts on Jupiter Hammon

There are many interesting things one ought to consider when reading Jupiter Hammon’s works.  Jupiter Hammon had a very interesting background. He, unlike many slaves, was given the opportunity to attend school. This is important because he writes eloquently. His writing abilities help him target a wide range of people. In “An Evening Thought” one can clearly see that Jupiter Hammon practically handcrafted and embedded complex ideas. On a superficial level, this work appears to simply be a religious writing. However, as we dive deeper into the writing we can begin to see how well aware and relevant Jupiter Hammon really was to his time. Phrases, like “Increase your Faith, do not repine: Awake ye every nation. Lord unto whom now shall we go, Or seek a safe Abode”, are religious but might also be a subtle reference to the civil conflicts taking place during that time period.

Some readers may not be familiar with the Judeo-Christian traditions or sacred texts. These readers may have difficulty understanding or grasping the language being used. Other readers, who have no difficulty understanding the imagery, may find this text repetitive. They might even think the repetition in the work resembles the beating of a dead horse! These two very distinct perspectives were very thought provoking. Why would a well-educated man use language which would either exclude non-believers or become excessively redundant, even for believers of the Faith? While this may be overlooked and dismissed as a simple negligence from Jupiter Hammon, I do not think this is the case.

As an educated African American slave, Jupiter Hammon was between two worlds. In one hand he was favored by the Lloyd family, while on the other hand he was part of the African American community.  Jupiter Hammon’s background allowed him to be heard in both communities, which, for the time period was very noteworthy. This being the case, Jupiter Hammon’s challenge was to make his writing relevant two both worlds without being overly radical. By using religious themes Jupiter Hammon would be accepted by the white community. This was a central focus during the time period which would have been widely accepted. Religion in general is something that has always appealed to mankind because religion tends to provide some kind of explanation for the higher questions of life. Regardless of the religion chosen, religion in general provides a system of belief. This religious theme was also a way for Jupiter Hammon to make both slaves and slave owners come together on an even plane field.  Slave owners are held accountable for unforgiving harsh treatments, which according to the Christian ideals are considered sinful, and slaves are encouraged to live a righteous spiritually aware life.

Jupiter Hammon

Jupiter Hammon was able to use his formal education and creative talents to reach out to these two different worlds. That is to say, Jupiter Hammon used his writings to grasp the attention of a wide variety of people. Having these different perspectives in mind, one can truly begin to appreciate Jupiter Hammon’s works as well has his merit.