Hughes wrote ‘Let America Be America Again’ in 1935. It was originally published a year later in Esquire Magazine then later in A New Song, a small collection of poems. The poem was written while Hughes was traveling from New York to see his mother in Ohio. Due to recent personal events, reviews, and the health of his mother, he turned to writing as an outlet to express some of his deeper thoughts about what it was truly like to live in America. This poem explores the themes of identity, freedom, and equality. It is just as applicable to today’s world as it was in the mid-thirties. Readers today will find several entry points into Hughes’ experience of the American Dream.
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Summary of Let America Be America Again
The poem takes the reader through the perspective of those who have been put-upon by a system that is supposed to help them. They are the poor, the immigrants, the African Americans, and the Native Americans. They are any who have sought the American Dream and found it to be nonexistent, at least for them.
Through the text, Hughes outlines what it would mean to really have the America that people say exists. It will require taking the country back from the “leeches” who feed on the poor and truly achieving freedom.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of Let America Be America Again
‘Let America Be America Again’ by Langston Hughes is an eighty-six line poem that is divided up into seventeen stanzas of varying lengths. The shortest stanzas are only one line long and the longest stretches to twelve. Usually, the poem is quite interesting. The stanzas are inconsistent, some of the lines are in parenthesis and some in italics.
There is not a single rhyme scheme that unites the entire poem, but there are patterns for stanzas and for sections. For example, the first three quatrains, four-line stanzas, generally rhyme ABAB. As the poem progresses though the rhyme scheme is less consistent. There are several examples of half-rhyme as well.
Half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, “soil” and “all” in lines thirty-one and thirty-three.
Poetic Techniques in Let America Be America Again
Hughes makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Let America Be America Again’. These include but are not limited to anaphora, enjambment, alliteration, and metaphor. The first, anaphora, is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. This technique is used frequently throughout the poem. For example, “Let it be” at the beginning of lines two and three, as well as “I am the” which starts a total of ten lines.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “dream the dreamers dreamed” in line six.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are several examples in this poem, including the transitions between lines eleven and twelve, as well as twenty-six and twenty-seven.
A metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. For example, a reader can look to lines twenty-six and twenty-seven which read “Tangled in that ancient endless chain / Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!”
Analysis of Let America Be America Again
Let America be America again.Let it be the dream it used to be.(…)(America never was America to me.)
In the first stanza of ‘Let America Be America Again,’ the speaker begins by making use of the line that later came to be used as the title. He is asking that things go back to the way they used to be, at least in everyone’s mind. There was, some indeterminately long time ago, the feeling that anything was possible in America. There was the freedom of the “plain” and the ability to seek a home for oneself. But, that dream is changing. It is not what it “used to be”.
This first quatrain is followed by a single line “(America never was America to me). To Hughes, living as a black man in America, things were always different.
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—Let it be that great strong land of love(…)(It never was America to me.)
The second quatrain reemphasizes what for some was a real, tangible dream they could strive for. The word “dream” is repeated several times throughout these first stanzas, emphasizing the fact that that is what it is—a dream. The poet asks that the “great strong land of love” return. It is, in this description, an ideal place where tyranny has no foothold. Never, in this idealized version, was a man crushed by one above him.
But, as a contemporary reader should understand, this is only fiction. That is not the America that exists today, nor did it ever exist. Hughes makes this clear in the follow up of a single line, again in parenthesis, which says “It never was America to me”. He knows his own experience and is not going to ignore it.
O, let my land be a land where LibertyIs crowned with no false patriotic wreath,(…)(There’s never been equality for me,Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
The third quatrain follows the same ABAB rhyme scheme as the previous two. A two-line stanza, in parenthesis, follows. He dives back into this over the top, idealized image of America. It is, in the stories, songs, and movies, a “land where Liberty / Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath”. Everything is perfect there and each person can attain success and happiness. The “opportunity is real” and “life is free”. The word “free” is key here.
The two that follow, which provide the reader with insight into the speaker’s real thoughts about America, describe something different. He has not experienced that universal “quality” that America is supposedly known for. It is not the “‘homeland of the free”’ for him.
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?(…)And finding only the same old stupid planOf dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
The pattern that had been developing in the previous stanzas of ‘Let America Be America Again’ dissolves when another two-line stanza follows. Lines seventeen and eighteen are in italics. This was one in order to draw increased attention to them as a turning point in the poem. Things are about to change in how the speaker talks about America.
These lines ask two questions. They are directed at the previous statements that came in parenthesis. The speaker’s negativity is questioned. These lines suggest that the speaker is trying to do something evil. In his free speech, he is trying to disrupt the normal way people see the world.
The following six lines provide the voice with the first part of an answer. The speaker responds by saying that he is not just one person, but many. He is the collected mind of those that have not been able to get in touch with the American dream. He is the “poor white” that has been “fooled” and taken advantage of by those richer than he. The speaker is also the “Negro bearing slavery’s scars” and the “red man,” a reference to Native Americans, who were “driven from the land”. These, as well as immigrant children, are outlined in this first stanza of response.
He has found nothing in the world to make him believe in the American dream. There is only the “same old stupid plan / Of dog eat dog” and the strong destroying those beneath them.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,Tangled in that ancient endless chain(…)Of work the men! Of take the pay!Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
The next six lines of ‘Let America Be America Again’ provide additional lines in response to the question. He is representing the “young man” who began full of hope and is now stuck in the web of capitalism and the “dog eat dog” world.
Hughes uses anaphora in these lines to emphasize what it takes to move through the world while seeking success. One has to grab “profit, power”. They have to “grab the gold” and “grab the ways of satisfying need”. It is take, take, take.
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.I am the worker sold to the machine.(…)I am the man who never got ahead,The poorest worker bartered through the years.
The next four lines of ‘Let America Be America Again’ also use anaphora in the repetition of “I am” at the beginning of the lines. He explains that he also represents the farmer, worker, Negro, and “people, humble, hungry, mean”. The use of alliteration in this line makes the stanza overall feel more rhythmic. One should bounce from word to word while taking in Hughes’s meaning.
He is everyone that has been pushed down and locked out of the American Dream as he outlined it in the first few stanzas. That dream does not exist for him. He refers to them as men and women who “never got ahead”. He is the “poorest worker bartered” by employers, “through the years”.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dreamIn the Old World while still a serf of kings,(…)And torn from Black Africa’s strand I cameTo build a “homeland of the free.”
The next stanza of ‘Let American Be America Again’ is the longest of the poem with twelve lines. It speaks on the history of those who have come to America in search of that dream but have been unable to find it. He “dreamt our basic dream” while still in the “Old World” where dreams such as that felt impossible. He relates the immigrants who first came to America, and the dream they were seeking, to its nonexistence today. They wanted something strong, brave, and true but that does not exist now.
He casts himself as “the man who staled those early seas” looking for a new home. He is the Irishman, the Pole, the Englishman, he is the African “torn from Black Africa’s strand”. All are in America now wanting to build a life.
The free?Who said the free? Not me?Surely not me? The millions on relief today?(…)The millions who have nothing for our pay—Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
The word “free” is in question in the following line. It stands by itself, a two-word line. “The free?” It draws the reader’s attention in an acute and precise way.
He follows this up with a series of questions asking who would even say the word “free?” The millions who are “shot down when we strike?” Or those who “have nothing for our pay?” There is no “free” to speak of.
All that’s left for any of those people that Hughes has mentioned is the sliver of the dream that’s “almost dead today”.
O, let America be America again—The land that never has been yet—(…)Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,Must bring back our mighty dream again.
The opening line of ‘Let America Be America Again’ is repeated at the beginning of this stanza. Here, he explores what America is really like and what he would like it to be. He speaks of himself, “ME” and all those who “made America” what it is. Those who should benefit most are also those who gave their “sweat and blood”. America is built on “faith and pain” and it is those who have given the most who should benefit. He hopes that the dream will return to them, someday.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—The steel of freedom does not stain.(…)O, yes,I say it plain,America never was America to me,(…)
The seventieth line of ‘Let America Be America Again’ admits that many are going to push back against the speaker. He will be called “ugly name[s]” but nothing is going to stop him from pursuing the freedom he wants. It is a brave and honorable thing to pursue freedom and he won’t be knocked down by the “leeches”. These are the men and women who take advantage of the hard-working people mentioned in the previous stanzas. He speaks rousingly to the masses, “We must take back our land again” and make it the America it was meant to be.
It might not have been America to this speaker before, or right now, but through these lines, he establishes a goal to make it the America he wants.
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,(…)All, all the stretch of these great green states—And make America again!
In the final lines of ‘Let America Be America Again’ the speaker explains that from the dark, “rape and rot of graft, and steal, and lies” there will come something bright and good. The people are going to be redeemed and free. The vastness of the country will resemble the vastness and freedom of the people. Those put upon and forgotten will renew the world.