Langston Hughes’ Let America Be America Again
Langston Hughes’ compelling poem, Let America Be America Again, discusses an essential reality of the American history: the intrinsic contradiction in the ‘American Dream’. The theme of the poem is thus the turning of the American Dream of greatness, of peace, liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness into a historical nightmare. The failure of the American Dream to acquire actuality is a pervasive theme in a great number of literary works. Hughes takes up this subject using the American history of discrimination and persecution as a background. The theme is developed in a complex pattern. The poem thus begins by deploring the loss of the American Dream and the virginal beginnings of the continent, thus mimicking the commonplace view of modern America. Gradually however, it appears clear that the America in the dream has never existed, except as an illusion or a projection. The proof for this is given by centuries of severe racial discrimination or of capitalist aggression. The last part of the poem returns to the concept of the American Dream, emphasizing the fact that in spite of the bitter historical reality, the only hope for the land still comes from this idealistic dream and the people who have believed in it and continue to do so. Eventually, the poem urges a recommencement of the dream and a fresh start for the nation, thus granting America the potential for regeneration.
The theme of the poem is enshrouded in a thick foil of literary devices. Among these, allusion is a crucial literary element. Thus, a great part of the poem’s message is given through indirect statement. For instance, the first part of the poem is marked by parenthetical commentaries that deconstruct the meaning of the previous lines, alluding to the existence of a historical reality that is far from the idealistic American Dream. Another instance of allusion in the poem is that to the various forms of discrimination that have dominated the American democracy, from racism to class discrimination or capitalist exploitation: “I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,/ I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars./ I am the red man driven from the land,/ I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek…”(Hughes) Oppositely, there are also allusions to the text of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, such as the use of the phrase “we, the people”: “We, the people, must redeem/ The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.”(Hughes) The poem is therefore fraught with allusions that target the failings and contradictions of the American Dream, to the effect that the gap between the dream and the historical reality is greatly enlarged in this way.
Another literary device that the author uses plentifully is the metaphor. The metaphors provide the poem with poignant effects. The initial emphasis on absolute equality of rights in America is for instance translated in a metaphor: “Equality is in the air we breathe.”(Hughes) The metaphor thus points to the essential life of the American Dream: democracy. For the foundations of America, equality was as crucial as life’s fuel, the air. Another metaphor translates the sometimes hypocritical stance of America as a nation, which the pursuit of liberty is sometimes attached to a false patriotic ideal: “O, let my land be a land where Liberty/ Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath…”(Hughes) Finally, a metaphor is used to suggest that, far from being protected and supported, the individual is sometimes bound in an endless chain of economical or political interests: “[…]Tangled in that ancient endless chain/ Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land…”(Hughes) The metaphors used in the poem enrich the fabric of the text, emphasizing the weak points of the American democracy.
The meaning of the poem is also partly articulated by important symbols. One of these is the proud American flag, with its starred pattern symbolizing the constitution established by the first seven states on the continent. In this context, the symbol serves as a powerful effect, pointing to the way in which the wronged or persecuted individual casts a veil over the stars on the flag: “And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?”(Hughes) Thus, the symbol contours the way in which the injustices suffered by the individual overshadow the initial, idealistic proposal which was inscribed on the American flag.
Another important element for building up the mood of the poem is the tone that the author uses to deliver his message. Thus, the tone alternates from a common, almost dispassionate imperative, such as Hughes employs in the first two stanzas of the poem for instance to a passionate, rollicking rhetoric which directly attacks the flaws of American democracy or capitalism. Thus, the use of the full stop for the delimitation of the first lines for instances sets up a seemingly casual tone. The author also uses the phrase “Let America be American again”, suggesting a rather dispassionate urge. However, as the poem proceeds, the initial affirmations are counteracted by the ones in the parentheses, where the tone shifts to a bitter and even accusatory one. The final part of the poem reveals the passion of the author through the now determined and direct tone employed. Through the tone therefore, the writer sets up the mood of the poem and conveys his attitude towards the American Dream and its failings.
The most interesting elements in Hughes’ poem seem to be however the sound effects. One of these, the alliteration, is employed several times in the text, to the effect of giving the poem a song-like or incantation like feature: “Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–/ Let it be that great strong land of love […]”(Hughes) Along with the alliteration and sound repetitions, there are also actual word or phrase repetitions all over the poem, which work together towards a lyrical effect. The most notable ones are the repetitions that the author uses so as to impersonate different voices of the dispossessed, from the black slave to the poor white, as victims of oppression. These repetitions create the effect of multiple voices, which are at the same time united by their common plight. Euphony and cacophony are also used so as to express tenderness and beauty on the one hand or harshness and discontent on the other. The last stanza is thus drafted on a strong instance of cacophony or discordant sounds which convey the ugliness of the reality described: “Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,/The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies…”(Hughes). On the other hand, the positive feelings are expressed through euphonies that are meant to indicate absolute harmony and coherence: “But opportunity is real, and life is free,/ Equality is in the air we breathe.”(Hughes) Assonances and dissonances are also used, mainly to display the conflict between the would-be America in the American Dream and the real one. The rhyme and the rhythm of the poem are irregular, effectively presenting the alternations of tone, from the apparently detached voice to the impassionate one. The rhythm thus changes from the first part of the poem, where it is curt and discontinuous, to the last part where it becomes alert and fast paced. The rhyme generally follows the ABAB scheme, which serves to form a musical chain of the lines.
Hughes, Langston. “Let America Be America Again”. The Academy of the American Poets. http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15609, Mar. 23, 2008
 Hughes, Langston. “Let America Be America Again”. The Academy of the American Poets. http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15609, Mar. 23, 2008