Recent #BlackLivesMatter-affiliated disruptions of Bernie Sanders campaign events (first at the NetRoots convention and more recently at a rally in Seattle, remind me of a famous—though widely misunderstood— poem by the black radical poet Langston Hughes.
Published during his early, pro-communist period, Hughes’ “Let America Be America” may be the black communist poem most likely to be found in an American literature high school textbook.
You might recognize it from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, where King quotes Hughes forcefully:
Oh, I say it plain,
America never was America to me
But this I swear:
America shall be!
The poem is not from 1963, however, but from 1936, a year when the Communist Party of the United States (which Hughes then supported) was similarly running a socialist Presidential ticket, even while pledging in advance to support the liberal Democrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (Sound familiar?) It was a moment when the then-growing CPUSA turned towards the patriotic rhetoric of the ‘Popular Front,’ attempting to reach a broader American audience in the face of fascism, with decidedly mixed results.[i]
From this moment of crisis, Hughes poem famously offered a remarkably redemptive arc. “Let America Be America Again” sketches a call to actualize America’s most utopian aspirations, in ways its official “founders” never dreamed: to expand social and economic freedom and equality to all.
Less obvious than the rousing call to redeem “America,” though—and particularly relevant to the BLM/Sanders controversy—is the way that Hughes’ arc towards the redemption of “America” is far from seamless or smooth. Hughes’ hope here ain’t some red white and blue rainbow that smoothly and inevitably ends in a pot o’ gold and freedom for all. Rather the redemptive arc is only made possible in Hughes’ account by disruption—by the annoyance, the interruption, and the ultimately the outright displacement of one well-meaning “American” speaker by another voice, more precisely a collective, multi-racial, working-class voice, a voice that represents all the excluded, oppressed, and exploited people who have sweated or sacrificed (willingly or not) to construct the wealth and power that rules over them.
It is interesting to re-read this poem today, imagining Sanders—or the Democratic Party more generally[ii]— as the opening speaker, and the #BLM disrupters as the second speaker, who emerges from the “dark.” This shadow speaker appears first in parenthesis, but quickly claims center stage, taking over the poem.
[As this article was going to press, I became aware of this radio footage which includes the actual speech that #BlackLivesMatter activist Marissa Janae Johnson gave (over hecklers) after interrupting the Sanders rally, and being permitted by organizers to address the crowd. A very sophisticated and insightful radio discussion of political tactics and philosophy follows. I encourage people to check it out.]
We open with patriotic nostalgia:
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.)
Contradicted from the margins, the nostalgic dreamer pushes on, hearkening back to the original “dreamers” and invoking the notion of America as a land of freedom and equality.
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.
Yet the contradicting voice returns:
(It never was America to me.)
The lead speaker at first tries to talk over the interruption, calling for the realization of the American myth—he is not saying that things are ok in the present, he is critical of them— yet the parenthetic shadow refuses to be silent:
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.”)
The shadow speaker here calls into question the very sincerity of the ‘progressive’ aspirations that the first speaker offers as the proper horizon of progress. The “homeland of the free” appears in quotes, suggesting irony; the second speaker does not take this progressive patriotic rhetoric at face value; it is a sham, mere hot air.
The sarcasm gets the first speaker’s attention. By this third interruption, he is clearly annoyed:
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
From the standpoint of the patriotic progressive on the stage, the parenthetical shadow speaker appears as a distraction from the main event, or worse, a disruptive blockage that threatens to obscure the “stars” of hope that the lead speaker wants to make visible. (Sound familiar?)
Again, the shadow speaker responds, no longer “mumbling in the dark,” freed from parentheses. From here on out the formerly shadow speaker dominates. (We might imagine this second speaker storming the stage, seizing the microphone; the lead speaker forced to be silent, the crowd forced to listen.) The rest of the poem reads as a collective monologue of the marginalized.
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!
It is notable that Hughes imagines the interruptive speaker not in narrow identity terms, though Black oppression is foregrounded, but as a kind of proletarian coalition of the exploited, oppressed, and expropriated: the Negro, the red man, the poor white, the immigrant. It is a collective, hybrid speaker that has been in various ways “tangled” in the chains of “dog eat dog” capitalism.
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.
The reference to “Pioneers” mocks the opening speaker’s nostalgic reference to the “pioneer on the plain” an image that Hughes suggests is doubly false. First, because most would be “pioneers” end up as “sold” workers, “bonded” farmers, poor servants, etc. And second, because the process of “westward expansion” itself depends on driving the “red man” from the land. Considerations of race and class alike make a mockery of the such American nostalgia, and of the American optimism that would base itself in returns to idealized pioneer days.[iii]
Here though Hughes’ collective speaker, and his poem, takes a distinct turn, recuperating a new kind of radical optimism even as it reveals the dominant strain of hope to be based on lies. Key to this vision is the relocating of the “dream” as the property of the propertyless. In what can be read as a patriotic adoption of a marxist dialectic of alienated labor, the “dream” here is reimagined as present in the material work that has been performed by those who have labored and yet never born the fruits of that labor.
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 built environment of “America” (“land of the free”) has been produced by unfree labor. And thus if a kind of “freedom” is to be found there, it is to be found not in the produced wealth itself, nor in the lives of the majority of people, but in the gap between this wealth and its expropriated producers, European and African descended workers alike. In the suffering of those who labor and yet hunger.
The poem sharpens its sarcasm, offering a litany of the ways in which freedom has been denied to working people.
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.
“Almost dead,” yet not completely gone. For here the poem turns, from the brink of death, to a declared will to rise again. Or more precisely, to bring into existence that which has never existed: to make truly universal the dream that has up until now spoken in universalistic terms, but forever been the property of the wealthy few. Indeed it is from this wealthy few that the people in Hughes’ poem must “take back” the land and the products of labor alike:
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.
Wary that such calls for taking back the commonwealth are likely to be denounced as “communists” or “radicals” the speaker adds:
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,
In truth, Hughes’ shadow speaker ends up sounding a lot like the populist socialism of the Sanders campaign, sketching out a kind of a worker-farmer multi-racial coalition vs. the “1%” of his day. And so Hughes reaches his optimistic climax, offering us the phrase that Martin Luther King invoked in late August, 1963, and more:
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!
What makes Hughes’ poem feel rather old fashioned at this late date—aside from the nationalism— may be the way the poem makes it all sound too easy. The process of displacing of one figure of ‘progressive’ thought by another, the achievement of a radical new notion of collective freedom…it all seems like a rather miraculous, instantaneous, and even unanimous shift: the monologue of the marginalized rolls on without opposition, commanding immediate respect. One wonders where the original speaker (Bernie Sanders or his supporters in our re-imagining) has gone while the emergent collective speaker has taken to the stage. Does he stand listening patiently while the shadow speaker? How does he respond? Is he bound and gagged? Does the crowd cheer or does it boo and heckle?
The fantasy here—which lurked in much of the Popular Front imaginary—is that the historically oppressed, the long silenced, can “speak” in the same form—and in the same forum—as the historically dominant and officially authorized. And that they will speak without any ‘excess’ of emotion or rage that may obscure the truth of the message, “drawing a veil across the stars.” (As if such a shadow speaker could emerge and take the stage without having to fight off the cops, without hecklers from an impatient, confused, or hostile crowd, with plenty of time to make the elaborate the revolutionary point.)
Not only that, the poem rather hopefully imagines that it is still possible to rebel against the original patriotic speaker in terms that the speakers’ followers might understand, in a form that redeems rather than the negates the notion of an “American dream.”
Also key to the power and the optimism of the shadow speaker is that he speaks in the name not just of one oppressed community but of all the oppressed and exploited whose voices have not been heard. (Alas, expressing the sexist limitations of his times, Hughes’ speaker is not as inclusive as we might hope when it comes to gender; the subject here is male throughout. We could thus imagine another parenthetical voice emerging to interrupt him as well.)
We cannot return to the 1930s of course, nor would we want to. And yet still Langston Hughes poem offers us an optimistic vision to think with and against, imagining the fusion of a critique of racial oppression and class inequality in such a way as to allow a powerful collective subject of the “people” to emerge. “Let America Be America Again” suggests that particular exclusions can give rise to new universal visions of freedom and equality for all, lifting old dreams to new heights. At the same time, it reminds us that the process of the people’s militant erupting into speech is not a seamless or smooth one; eruption requires interruption and disruption, talking back to established voices, displacing powerful leaders now at center stage. (Even some well-intentioned ones.)
The question then for today may be: How to hold together a vision of a powerful people’s unity opposed to “those who lives like leeches on the people’s lives” even as we recognize and embrace the need for struggles that can bring a truly inclusive, popular subject into existence?
* * *
Bringing matters back to today:
As a matter of principle, I would offer that from a left perspective even scheduled events with set agendas or invited speakers should be open and permeable to listening to and even expected to respond to spontaneous expressions of dissent, especially when this dissent is being raised by historically oppressed or under-represented groups (whether in terms of class, race, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc). Organizers should make it a priority to hear out and to make space for the voices of the most oppressed social strata, within reason and to the extent that it is in their power to do so. So long as the protesters appear to be acting in good faith, out of sincerity, we should not allow the shadow speakers of today to be silenced.
At the same time, it seems incumbent on those who would disrupt planned events with dissenting opinions or marginalized perspectives (however valid) to do what is in their power to make it possible for event organizers and audiences to hear them out, without utterly disrespecting the time, thought, and labor that has gone into the event itself, from organizers, attendees, etc. Hughes suggests the necessity of interruption, but also the possibility of being heard, the possibility of not just negating but taking back and transforming the language of the center stage, in the interests of those who have been confined to the margins. The possibility of achieving a higher level of unity through struggle.
Of course, articulating abstract principles is quite a different thing from implementing them in reality. Reality is stickier, messier, and always moving. Messier by far that Hughes poem suggests. The year is not 1936, nor 1963. One can hardly expect the oppressed to voice their concerns in only ‘polite’ or ‘respectful’ forms. A revolution, as they say, is not a dinner party.
Nonetheless, without the element of universality that Hughes’s shadow speaker gives voice to, there is a danger that such interruptions and disruptions (however well-intentioned) will fragment and divide the people further. Unless we frame our particular differences with respect to a common enemy and a common horizon of liberation, we risk playing into the hands of those who “live like leeches on the people’s lives.”
[i] There is a rich and widely varied scholarly literature appraising the cultural and political significance of the “Popular Front” period in vastly different and incompatible ways. For a classic and largely positive assessment see Michael Denning’s 1996 book The Cultural Front. For a much more critical take, see the works of Barbara Foley, including the opening chapter of her recent book on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Wrestling with the Left (2010).
[ii] Personally, I would much rather see such disruptions targeting the likes of Hillary Clinton.
[iii] #BLM activist Marissa Janae Johnson’s reminding of the Seattle crowd of the indigenous claims to the land on which they rallied echoes this point.