Let America Be America Again
by Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation.
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
- Langston Hughes, Let America Be America Again, 1936
In moments of uncertainty, we often return to familiar touchstones. For me, one such anchor of comfort and clarity is the poetry of Langston Hughes, icon of the Harlem Renaissance.
During recent weeks, I’ve found myself ruminating on Hughes’s Let America Be America Again, especially its astonishing opening stanzas. In these ten lines, Hughes evokes the power of the American promise, coupled with the pain of indignity and inequality. He speaks to the complex mix of rage and hope, of anxiety and optimism, that characterizes the black experience in America—and which I would argue has characterized the experience of many Americans at some point, white, brown, black, indigenous, and immigrant.
Over the past year, it has become clear that the noxious swill of rage and anxiety remains as potent as ever. Regardless of which side of the US election each of us was on, we all find ourselves living with a public discourse that has become increasingly callous, contemptuous, and polarizing...