Langston Hughes's poem "Let America Be America Again," first published in 1938, is representative of much of the famous writer's work. Hughes first became known during the Harlem Renaissance. His poetry, plays, and essays speak to and portray the African American everyman and use the rhythms of blues, jazz, and black spirituals. His impact, however, did not end on the page, as he continued to be a popular and influential voice for decades: in 1966, the year before he died, he was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to be the American representative to the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal. While Hughes was there, according to the New York Times (as quoted by Arnold Rampersad in a biography of Hughes), "young writers from all over Africa followed him about the city and haunted his hotel the way American youngsters dog favorite baseball players."
"Let America Be America Again" tackles the complicated issues of racial and social equality using simple language and clear images. Although the poem mentions many examples of hardship and unfairness, portraying the difficult economic situation in the United States in the 1930s, the final lines offer some hope for the future of the American dream. The poem first appeared in Esquire magazine as well as the pamphlet The New Song and can be found in the modern Hughes editions The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (1994) and Poems (1999).
The text used for this summary is from Poems, edited by David Roessel, Alfred A. Knopf, 1999, pp. 97-100. Versions of the poem can be found on the following web pages: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15609 and http://allpoetry.com/poem/8495513-Let_America_Be_America_Again-by-Langston_Hughes.
The first four lines of "Let America Be America Again" set up the premise of the poem: the speaker asks for America to fulfill its reputation as a place where people have freedom. Lines 2 and 6 allude to the American dream, which is supposed to be attainable by anyone willing to work hard, as with the example of a pioneer working to create a home on the prairies (lines 3-4). In lines 7-9, the speaker alludes to America's own fight for independence against England, pointing out that the United States has no monarch, and therefore everyone should be free and equal.
Lines 5 and 10 are set apart from the other lines by parentheses. The parentheses make these lines seem like quiet asides, separate from the main narrative of the poem. The larger stanzas relate the hope that America can live up to its promise, but lines 5 and 10 state simply that the speaker has not experienced the country's declared ideals.
Line 11 brings up the personification of the concept of liberty, and line 12 asks that she not be decorated with patriotism if that patriotism is not honest. The next two lines ask that freedom, equality, and opportunity be made real, for everyone in America. However, line 16, set apart like lines 5 and 10 in parentheses, clarifies the fact that the speaker does not feel that he has experienced equality and freedom in America. Line 16 echoes the final lines of the national anthem, but the words are enclosed within quotation marks to draw attention to the fact that they are not true for everyone.
The italics in lines 17-18 mark them as different from the others in the poem. The words might come from someone other than the speaker. These lines seem to challenge the speaker, asking why he is saying such negative things about his country.
The next three stanzas list all of the Americans who might respond to the lines in italics above. Hughes includes not only African Americans--former slaves and servants and poor workers--but also Native Americans, who have been forced to leave the territory their families lived on for generations; immigrants from all over the world who come to America full of optimism but find that they still cannot make a decent life for themselves; young people disillusioned by the greed, selfishness, and materialism they find in society; and tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and factory workers.
The following stanza, lines 39-50, explains that these poor and downtrodden people, the peasants from Europe and people taken from Africa and enslaved, are the ones who made America. Their labor built the cities and farmed the countryside. These people worked hard because they hoped for something better in the future.
Lines 51-55 are questions with which the speaker demands to know who has freedom in America. Lines 56-59 serve as a continuation of the question in line 55, which is restated in line 60. The speaker is clearly frustrated that, in spite of everything the common people have done to build America and make lives for themselves, they have little to show for it. Dreams and hope are all the people have now, and that hope is fading.
In this part of the poem, the mood changes from barely restrained anger and frustration to something more inspiring. The speaker asks again for America to live up to its reputation--to be better than it has ever been before. He demands that America be a place where everyone is free, regardless of wealth or race. Then the speaker calls on the workers of America to fill themselves with a sense of purpose and give new life to their hopes. In spite of what anyone might say, people must be strong and fight for the country they dream of.
Lines 75-79 bring the two threads of the poem together. The negative feelings that were allowed to appear only in parentheses at the beginning of the poem are stated bravely in line 77, and the words of inspiration that the poet offered in lines 62-74 build up to a pledge by the speaker in lines 78-79 that America will be what he hopes it can be.
The last stanza summarizes the poem well. Lines 80-81 admit the problems society faces, but the rest of the stanza is more hopeful and patriotic. Line 82 calls to mind the first line of the preamble to the Constitution, and line 84 echoes the lyrics of "God Bless America." In this final stanza, Hughes offers hope that America can be remade into the country it should be.