Let America Be America Again

by Langston Hughes

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Summary and Analysis

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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?

(This entire section contains 1266 words.)

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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 of the sky and a metaphorical darkening of the hope that stars represent. Furthermore, the image of drawing a “veil across the stars” is a metaphor for the physical covering, or veiling, of the American flag. This action suggests that there is a hidden and undesirable part of America, or that a part of America is not truly visible or accessible. The second half of the poem works to address and elucidate these images:

  • In stanza eight, the speaker positions himself as members of the minority groups of America—impoverished white Americans, black Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants—and in turn frames those groups as the ones who “mumble in the dark” and “draw [a] veil across the stars.” The speaker expresses a sense of hopelessness, saying that all these groups encounter the “same old stupid plan” of “mighty crush the weak.”
  • In stanza nine, the speaker describes himself as the “young man, full of strength and hope” being pulled into the system of exploitative capitalism—of “owning everything for one's own greed.”
  • In stanza ten, the speaker goes on to describe himself as various members of the working class. He is a farmer, a “worker sold to the machine,” and a black American forced into perpetual servitude. The speaker says that all of these workers are hungry, “despite the dream” described in the first, third, and five quatrains. He states, “I am the man who never got ahead,” in direct contrast to the celebrated American pioneers.
  • Stanza eleven credits these oppressed groups with the development of the “basic dream” from which America was formed. The speaker says that he is the one who left “dark Ireland’s shore” and “Poland’s plain,” and who was “torn from Black Africa’s strand… to build a ‘homeland of the free.’”
  • Stanzas twelveand thirteen follow with several rhetorical questions. In response to stanza eleven’s final phrase, “homeland of the free,” stanza twelve is a single line in which the speaker echoes incredulously, “The free?” Stanza thirteen then begins with an expansion: “Who said the free?” The speaker uses rhetorical questions to describe those groups—including himself—that are not “the free” for which America is the homeland. “For all the dreams we’ve dreamed,” he says, these groups have nothing to show for their efforts but “the dream that’s almost dead today.”
  • In stanza fourteen, the speaker repeats the earlier stanza’s call to “let America be America again,” but describes this America as a “land that never has been yet— / And yet must be.” The speaker calls upon those oppressed minority groups, “who made America” with their “sweat and blood” and “faith and pain,” to rekindle their idealism in the push for an equitable society. Stanza fifteen describes potential opposition from “those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,” but the speaker’s call to action does not waver.
  • Stanza sixteen is short, and includes an oath: despite the fact that the ideal America never existed for the speaker, still, “America will be!” The speaker means to realize a better America and change the nation’s culture from one that perpetuates oppression to one that promotes equality and freedom.
  • In stanza seventeen, the speaker uses an imperative, stating that oppressed peoples “must” rise above ruin and poverty to redeem the nation. In doing so, the speaker calls upon “We, the people,” a direct echo of the Preamble to the United States Constitution. The speaker lists the natural features of America that must be redeemed—land, plants, rivers, and mountains. This shows the scale of the necessary undertaking and unites the geographical and cultural dimensions of the nation. In the final line, the speaker claims that the oppressed peoples will “make America again!”