Monday, July 26, 2004

The missing message

Nowhere in the profile of John Kerry in the 7/26 New Yorker, or anywhere else lately for that matter, is a mention of his erstwhile slogan, "Let America be America again," from the 1938 poem by Langston Hughes. Too radical I guess, especially after William F. Buckley got ahold of it (a Washington Post columnist rightly notes that it's pretty strange for Buckley's "bizarre column" to link Hughes with George Washington Carver).

With a surprising lack of attention to Hughes' poem itself, Buckley points out that African Americans had little cause to celebrate America's past in 1938. Hughes knew this, of course. Like James Baldwin with his call at the conclusion of The Fire Next Time for us to "achieve our country," he is asking, with some irony, for America to be true "again" to itself, to the values in its founding documents (to "be the dream it used to be"). The Constitution is powerful stuff, as our greatest African American thinkers insistently remind us.

But just in case the reader doesn't get it, Hughes is actually quite specific:
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.

In the current issue of Chapel Hill's own The Sun magazine is a wonderful essay by Howard Zinn on "the role of artists in a time of war." He quotes from another poem by Langston Hughes:

My dear girl,
You really haven't been a virgin for so long.
It's ludicrous to keep up the pretext.
You're terribly involved in world assignations
And everybody knows it.
You've slept with all the big powers
In military uniforms,
And you've taken the sweet life
Of all the little brown fellows
In loincloths and cotton trousers.
When they've resisted,
You've yelled, "Rape,"
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Being one of the world's big vampires,
Why don't you come on out and say so
Like Japan, and England, and France,
And all the other nymphomaniacs of power
Who've long since dropped their
Smoke screens of innocence
To sit frankly on a bed of bombs?

Zinn concludes,
It has always been a special fascination to me that black people, who you might assume would be most concerned, and maybe solely concerned, with the very serious issues of slavery and racism, should also be conscious of what the United States is doing to people--often people of color--in other parts of the world.

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