Summary and Analysis
Langston Hughes (1902–1965) was a well-known writer, poet, and journalist. Hughes stands as an icon of black empowerment: He helped shape the Harlem Renaissance and remains an inspiration and creative influence to this day. Hughes’s poetry often reflects the rhythms of blues and jazz music and celebrates black American culture. Both of these elements are showcased by his 1936 poem “Let America Be America Again,” which offers a thought-provoking perspective on the American dream, racism, oppression, and empowerment.
“Let America Be America Again” can be broken into two sections, which have different tones. The first section is comprised of stanzas one through six. This section alternates between quatrains (stanzas with four lines) and single lines or, at its conclusion, a couplet. The quatrains each have an ABAB rhyme scheme, and the shorter stanzas have the same end rhyme.
- Stanza one paints a bucolic and romantic image of a past America. The speaker says that America was once a “dream,” where a “pioneer on the plain” could find a home where “he himself is free.” This stanza is replete with alliteration and internal rhyme, which produce a flowing and rhythmic effect.
- Stanza two consists of a single line placed in parentheses. The parentheses suggest that despite the fact that this line rhymes with the line previous, it is meant to be read as a reply to or expansion on the first stanza, perhaps as an aside, a reply, or a digression. This line states that “America never was America to me,” excluding its speaker from the preceding stanza’s description of an idealized American past.
- Stanza three, like stanza one, is a quatrain with an alternating rhyme scheme. The speaker begins, “Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed.” This is an example of polyptoton, or the repetition of the same root word—in this case, “dream”—in different grammatical forms. This repetition produces a degree of hyperbole, highlighting the speaker’s dramatic—and perhaps imagined or ironic—understanding of America. The speaker then describes the ideal America as a “great strong land of love,” where neither “kings connive nor tyrants scheme.” The imagery and word choice in these lines sustain the stanza’s hyperbolic tone and create an overly idealistic vision of America.
- Stanza four is another parenthetical, one-line stanza. Shorter than stanza two, it simply insists, “It was never America to me.” The brevity and clarity of that statement contrast sharply with the heightened language of the previous stanza, producing a jarring effect for readers.
- In stanza five, the speaker continues using hyperbolically formal language to elevate the ideals of liberty, patriotism, opportunity, and equality. This stanza uses assonance, a repeated vowel sound, to blend the A and B rhymes—“Liberty” and “free” share a vowel sound with “wreath” and “breathe.” The abundance of long e rhymes contributes to the stanza’s hyperbolic tone and may elicit suspicions about the optimistic views contained therein.
- Stanza six is another parenthetical: “There’s never been equality for me, / Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’” This couplet acts as a final rebuttal to the quatrains’ unrealistic portrayal of a past America. Unlike the quatrains, which use hyperbole, the couplet speaks plainly. This contrast frames the couplet’s perspective as more grounded in reality.
Stanza seven is the turn, or the tonal and ideational shift in the poem. The stanza is an unrhymed couplet, set in italics, that asks two questions, presumably of the poem’s primary speaker: “Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? / And who are you that draws your veil across the stars? ” The lines in stanza seven use more vivid imagery than the preceding stanzas. For example, the phrase “mumbles in the dark” evokes an image that describes the subject as unknown and unheard. The phrase “draw[ing] your veil across the stars” evokes a darkening...
(The entire section is 1,266 words.)