Let America be America

We live in two Americas.

White and non-white. Republican and Democrat. Liberal and Conservative. Christian and non-Christian. Blue-collar and white-collar. Rich and poor. North and South. East and West. Pro-choice and pro-life. Gun rights and gun restrictions. Country and city. We are hell-bent are dividing ourselves from ourselves.

In case we haven’t noticed, this isn’t a good approach. Creating lines of separation keeps us separated. But valuing the differences builds strength. I know this is complicated and certainly not solved by a blog.

But I must say it. Diverse strength allows us to read a book or listen to a speech without getting angry and hostile because I disagree. It allows for conversations where we grow and learn from people with opposite perspectives. It requires that we learn to talk to one another, support one another, and value one another.

Valuing differences takes humility. It takes courage to risk being “wrong,” and it takes disinterest in having to be “right.” It’s actually the most American way to be. That’s why our Founding Fathers crafted documents dividing power and limiting control. They even thought it was a good idea for the Vice President to be the person who lost the race for President! (Talk about differing perspectives in the White House!)

(Yeah, that rule got changed.) But that’s the beauty of liberty. We can change things.

I’m teaching American Literature this year, which is a fabulous and exciting curriculum. I get to unveil America’s history and personality through the songs, essays, poems, stories, novels, and speeches that notable Americans have crafted. I am awed by the diversity and the strength of our history and the people who fought tooth and nail for our freedoms. These are the people who were brave enough to change things. They made us who we are.

Liberty isn’t doing whatever we want and saying whatever we want. Liberty is a gift, a stewardship of thought, purpose, and calling. Freedom frees the non-religious, the poor man, the slave, the woman, the orphan, the immigrant, the battered spouse, the abused child, the reformed prisoner, the migrant worker, the ensnared sex worker, the bullied employee, the wrongly accused. Freedom works only when it is universally given and respected, not when it’s wielded by political offices and corporate conglomerates. When we allow freedom to be used as a weapon–as bait-to disenfranchise people, we build those dividers even higher between privilege and want. We make America weaker.

That’s not the America we should accept. And if America of white privilege is embedded even in the Constitution (which it is), freedom demands that we root out the inequities that are embedded in human nature. That’s what we read in American Lit. We read Jefferson, Paine, Washington, Thoreau, Stowe, Anthony, Lincoln, Sandburg, Steinbeck, Frost, King, Angelou, Stevenson. We read them all because they were all pushing against American status quo.

Correcting the wrong perspectives is what will make America great. Valuing the differences. Working together.

Not more money. Not more jobs. Equality and equity only. Free chances for everyone. That’s what distinguishes us from the rest of the world.

But only if we do it.

Here are two of the poems we’re reading this year in my class. The first is by Walt Whitman. The second is by Langston Hughes.

“I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,

The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,

The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,

Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

“Let America Be America Again” 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!

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