What is the literal meaning of Langston Hughes' poem, "Let America be America Again"?

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andrewnightingale eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Langston Hughes is crying out that America should become the country it had promised to be. His poem is an appeal to all members of American society, without distinction, to make America great again. It is an almost desperate plea rooted in the strife and struggle that he has suffered and witnessed throughout his beloved country since birth.

Hughes is speaking about an America that was the idealised country the pioneers dreamt about. A land where everyone is free, not only in a political or societal context, but also free from exploitation, greed and all the other human foibles which have become so commonplace. The freedom which he speaks about is untainted by idealism or linked to any ideology. It should be a natural freedom, as free as the air we breathe, a freedom that creates limitless opportunities, equally for all.

Hughes uses the jarring images of people who have become the victims of an uncaring and selfish society, driven by greed and a lust for power. His references are very specific and inform about the ignominious treatment he and others have suffered. In the poem the speaker stands for everyone who has felt the lash and abuse of such a society - from the slaves, the poor whites, the indigenous inhabitants, to the modern day labourers, factory workers and farmers.

The poem encapsulates almost a historical account of suffering and abuse, where no one seems to be free and/or equal. Everyone bears some kind of a burden, all are shackled.

What stands out is that the dream of an ideal America has not died.

Except the dream that's almost dead today.

The speaker asserts that the dream is what brings hope. He passionately desires that the dream for an America free from prejudice, hatred, abuse, exploitation and all the evil that these bring, should be revived. Throughout the poem the speaker has stated that the America had never been the America he had wanted it to be, but he swears that it will be the America that he has idealised. This emphatic faith is in contrast to all the negativity the speaker has focused on throughout the poem.

The speaker (and also the poet) believes that:

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! 

In these last few lines he emphasises that there is only one route by  which America can become its true self again, and that is through a process of redemption. All that is natural must be cleansed of the taint of human malfeasance. All Americans must be prepared to sacrifice and participate in this act of atonement, for that is the only way in which it can become the country that everyone, from past to present, has always wanted it to be.