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Campaign Slogan

David Halbfinger in todays New York Times (Registration required - try BugMeNot for a username/password) writes that the Kerry campaign thinks it has found it's slogan - Let America be America again in poem by Langston Hughes. A quick read of the poem reveals that (presumably) Kerry is using the quote very much out of context; or he's never bothered to research the context. Halbfinger notes that Kerry does not use the parenthetical asides Hughes uses throughout the poem, such as "There's never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this homeland of the free."

Where Halbfinger stumbles is in completely failing to mention the political persuasion of the author and the context in which the poem was written. The poem dovetails with the socialist philosophies of it's author, widely recognized as one of the leading black memebers of the Communist Left during the 1930s. The poem is not about a return to glory - Hughes is saying there never was a good 'ol days, at least for the oppressed masses. The America Hughes envisions never existed, it's a new creation presumably more communist utopia that capitalistic grind.

Poetry is subjective so don't automatically accept my interpretation of the poem; read it yourself and form your own opinion. If you were running for President would you want the long form of this poem as the centerpiece of your campaign?

Let America Be America Again - 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,

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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Comments (7)

Halbfinger is <a href="http... (Below threshold)

Halbfinger is late to the story. But what else is new? He works for the Times.

If you were running for ... (Below threshold)
Charlie T.:

If you were running for President would you want the long form of this poem as the centerpiece of your campaign?

No, but it isn't the centerpiece, any more than Bush I's phrase "new world order" was meant to evoke the Nazis' "New Order".

So Kerry is a communist now because of this poem? Good grief.

So Kerry is a communist ... (Below threshold)

So Kerry is a communist now because of this poem?

That's neither written nor implied, just that the poem from which the line was directly lifted (with attribution) is not pro-US, America rocks kind of poem. Hughes also hoped to add an S (as in socialist) to USA, thus becoming USSA (like USSR). Just seems to be an odd choice for a presidential candidate.

The Bush I analogy is bullshit, I'm not talking about evoking this or that - I'm talking about direct use and attribution of part of a poem. Did they think no one would every be curious about the rest?

Kevin:I hear you on ... (Below threshold)

I hear you on this one, and in some ways I agree with you. Kerry's adoption of a Langston Hughes poem is somewhat patronizing, perhaps hoping to fend off some of the criticism he has recieved over not having more minorities in his campaign. But I think the red baiting on Langston Hughes sucks. Yes, it is true he was a communist, but put his communism in the context of his time. At the time Langston Hughes joined the communist party, it was the only political party in the world that at least gave lip service to Blacks, poor workers and other disenfranchised peoples. Most black intellectuals saw the workers movement as one of the few places where their color did not seem to matter. The same thing could be said about Paul Robeson and other black celebrities of the time. Imagine people of the talent these folks had... Who could entertain the masses but not stay in a first class hotel. They were hoodwinked by a communist party that simply used them. The poem is a powerful condemnation of what was wrong with America, and in some ways, still is. Yes, I agree with you on raising an eyebrow at Kerry's choice in this matter, but I ask that all reasonable people look at Langston Hughes as a great artist, who was manipulated by a Utopian Dream.... Nonetheless, a Great Artist.

I seem to recall a small fu... (Below threshold)

I seem to recall a small fuss made about one of Clinton's campaign parties in which Billy Joel's "Captain Jack" was one of the featured music selections. Now, while it's quite plausible that the references to drug use and masturbation might have been befitting for Clinton, I think that little stir, and this one as well, is best attributed to an advisor being asleep at the switch.

Kerry does and says quite enough himself that his campaign should be doomed--no need to stretch a faux pas like this into a newsworthy item.

Can't we just be happy that... (Below threshold)

Can't we just be happy that Sen. Kerry can read long poems and big-boy books all by himself, unlike the current leadership?

Seroiusly, tho', Hughes was a great writer and an important figure in the struggle for equality in the US---a struggle that is still ongoing today. "There's never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this homeland of the free" is still very true for large numbers of Americans.

Equality is a nice ideal. U... (Below threshold)

Equality is a nice ideal. Unattainable, but really nice.

This is one of the fundamental differences between liberals and conservatives. Liberals strive for equality for everyone; conservatives work for fairness.

Neither one is realistically achievable.






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