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Belching black smoke and blowing its whistle, the Empire State Express pulled out of Grand Central station on an October evening in 1935, Cleveland bound. On board were dozens of businessmen, a handful of salesmen, and one poet.
The train rattled across an America in despair. Three years into the New Deal, unemployment was 20 percent. As the sun set, passengers peered out at hobo jungles, houses lit by gas lamps, cities broken and battered. Any mention of the American Dream seemed a mockery, but somewhere in the grim landscape, Langston Hughes began writing. . .
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.)
Like the fallen America, Hughes wondered when he would touch bottom. The success of his his 20s as a leading light in the Harlem Renaissance had flickered. Selling a poem or a story every few months, he had since scraped out a living. As a "literary sharecropper," he saw "that Fate never intended for me to have a full pocket of anything but manuscripts." The previous year his book of short stories, The Ways of White Folks, had been denounced as anti-white. Hughes, short and soft-spoken with no hatred for whites, wondered "how one can write a book that will not immediately be taken as a generalization on the whole race problem?" That spring, his father had died in Mexico drawing him there with hope of an inheritance. But he loathed his father, who had left the family, and the feeling was mutual. He got nothing.
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.
Back from Mexico that summer, he had gone to Los Angeles. Holed up in a dollar-a-night motel, he wrote a children's book that was rejected, then failed to land job writing for Hollywood. By late August he was headed home to his mother's house in Oberlin, Ohio. But he and his mother quarreled and he soon left for Manhattan on word that his play, "Mulatto" was headed for Broadway. The play, gutted by the director, got terrible reviews. The next evening, Hughes boarded the train for Cleveland, burdened now by word that his mother had breast cancer.
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.”)
Like many artists and writers during the Depression, Hughes had flirted with communism. "If the communists don't awaken the Negro of the South," he wrote in 1932, "who will?" His flirtation with the Communist Party, which he never joined, got him banned from speaking engagements and labeled "officially a communist." But there on the train, he gave his dreams another chance.
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.
From Manhattan to Buffalo and beyond, Hughes wrote for much of that evening. Through the eyes of the downtrodden, he described America not as a nation but as an idea.
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.
When he was done, Hughes rode on into the night. As the sun rose over Cleveland, he changed trains and headed home to help his mother. He held no special fondness for his latest poem. The following summer, when Esquire accepted it, he was outraged that the magazine bought just the first 50 lines. He considered protesting the edit but needed the money. Hughes never discussed the poem again, coming to see it as a relic of his radical years. His two autobiographies did not mention the work, nor did he include it in his Selected Poems.
But the dream described on a train riding through the Depression has crept into our consciousness. The poem rose from obscurity in 1992 when Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall read it at an American Bar Association meeting. It soon entitled a show at the Museo del Barrio in Manhattan. In 2004 "Let America Be America Again" took the national stage when it became candidate John Kerry's theme. That earned it the title of a new collection of Hughes' poetry. In 2009, "Let America..." became part of a hip-hop review. It is now recited in poetry slams and taught in colleges and high schools. Youtube videos recite it against a backdrop of patriotic imagery. And the poem rolls onward, cherished by all who see America not just as a nation but as an idea and a work in progress...
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!