Poem of the Week: American Dreams, Struggle, and Unity
I don’t think that I will ever be able to hear the words “great” and “America” together again without cringing. And yet, I want to continue the discussion about how we can all achieve the American Dream.
I guess that what I most want my students to understand about the place they live is this: It’s complicated. It’s not really about whether America was or ever will be great—it’s about looking at what does work and looking even more closely at what doesn’t work. We can be both great and not great at the same time.
One of my favorite ways to talk about the ambiguity and paradox of this nation is by teaching Langston Hughes’ poem “Let America Be America Again.”
This lesson seems super relevant right now.
In this poem, the speaker talks about the potential that he sees in his country—even though he has not personally experienced that potential yet. The poem opens with hope, “Let America be America again… the dream it used to be.” And then the speaker quickly states the fact that his country has never actually been what it could be: “(America never was America to me.)” The dream might have been real for some people, but it hasn’t come true for him yet.
The poem is lyrical and song-like, and yet the speaker is not asking that American be America again—he’s commanding that it be so. Demanding that people get the dream that they deserve is something that speaks to me right now.
Even though it is about that dream, it’s not at all a naive poem. It’s long, and it outlines plenty of injustices and problems. The speaker not only mentions those issues, he also embodies them in his struggle. He says of “I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, / I am the black man 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.” He takes in the pain of all of this history, and he is empowered by that struggle. A poem about having hope when everything around you seems dark and bleak is one that speaks to me right now.
The key, as the speaker outlines it in this poem, to overcoming the “kings” and the “tyrants” is by working together—by seeing what all of those oppressed groups have in common, and by rising up together to claim what’s theirs. He says, “We must take back our land again…. 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.” A poem that speaks about uniting rather than dividing people also speaks to me right now.
Of course, beyond the timeliness of the message in this poem, in my experience, students love Langston Hughes. His poems are accessible but they are also challenging. They sound good when read out loud, yet they also utilize poetic elements in a way that warrants some good close reading. A lesson on this poem is one that students refer back to throughout the year.
I guess what it comes down to is that right now, I really need a poem that offers some hope that we might rise up together and take back the country from oppressors.