12 February 2018
A Mid 1900’s Call of Arms
Despite the end of slavery with the Civil War, the mid 1900s was still a time of oppression for the African American population. They were considered outside of mainstream society and were seen as “less than”; yet, they all harbored hope for the American Dream. The American Dream is the set of beliefs that America is founded upon: “The ideal that every US citizen should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative” (American Dream). Social activist Langston Hughes wrote many poems in support for African American rights. Each poem displays a theme or expresses a supportive tone that was meant to help these African Americans get through their hardships. Hughes’s message is realistic in that it acknowledges the negative plight that the Jim Crow laws had imposed upon the black population, yet the poems offer hope and a create positive imagery that offers a better future. Throughout the poems “Let America Be America Again,” “Harlem,” “Theme for English B,” and “Open Letter to the South,” Langston Hughes uses a centralized theme of not giving up on the American Dream to persuade the African American population to continue pushing through the hardships.
The poem “Let America Be America Again” shows Langston Hughes’s thoughts on the true American Dream. The speaker of the poem describes the American Dream that everyone believes in; that is until they get to the America, and the truth hits them. He repeats the words “Let America be America Again” multiple times throughout the poem with a mocking tone. This, of course, is talking about the America that everyone yearns for, which he explains is just a dream, not a reality. Hughes adds the second speaker as the common white man, to give the main speaker an opportunity to show multiple examples of Americans whose dreams have been deferred. He talks about the poor white men, the slaves, and the Indians. He touches on almost everyone except for the rich white men of America, who are the leaders of America. He shows that America isn’t a place of freedom, but instead a place for many people to have their freedoms exploited and taken away:
To build a ‘homeland of the free’ / The free? / Who said the free? Not me? / Surely not me? The millions on relief today? / The millions shot down when we strike? / The millions who have nothing for our pay? / For the dreams we’ve dreamed / And all the hopes that we have held / And all the flags we’ve hung / The millions who have nothing for our pay- / Except the dream that’s almost dead today (“Let America Be America Again” 50-61).
All these Americans give up their hard work and time to try to provide the best lives they can for themselves and their families, yet they have nothing to show for it. Langston Hughes carries a personal and sad tone, conveying that he wants something that he cannot achieve. At the end of the poem, Hughes shifts his tone to optimism when he says, “America never was America to me, / And yet I swear this oath- / America will be” (“Let America…” 77-80). He is ending with almost a “call to arms,” for the people who have not been given the American Dream, to come together as one and turn the American Dream into a reality for all.
Langston Hughes goal is to create unity in the workforce through the poem “Open letter to the South.” The speaker starts by calling all workers, as if they are all the same. He is trying to push for freedom and equality in the workplace, regardless of race. He pleads:
Let us become instead, you and I / One single hand / That can united rise / To smash the old dead dogmas of the past- / To kill the lies of color / That keep the rich enthroned / And drive us to the time-clock and plow / Helpless, stupid, scattered, and alone- as now- / Race against race / Because one is block / Another white of face ( “Open Letter…” 21-31).
The speaker argues that everyone should forget Booker T. Washington’s statement that we are “separate at the fingers, yet one at the hand.” He suggests that we should not see each other as separate, but instead, see us all as one united hand, ending all racial stereotypes. Through this, the speaker is trying to unite all of the workers to end the dogma that the rich have started against the African Americans to monopolize the company, and make black people be considered “less than.” He continues to urge the workers that they are all united through brotherhood. He states that they did not know that they are brothers, but they are because of strength and unity. The last of his stanzas shows what he wants to accomplish as a union. He says that the workers want to take the land and factories. This shows that his goal is to cripple the rich business owners, and have workers run the business. The poem “Open Letter to the South” ignites Langston Hughes’ centralized theme that no one should give up on the American Dream because everyone is an equal.
“Theme for English B” tells of a twenty-two year old black man attending Columbia University. His English teacher gives the class the task of writing a page-long paper containing whatever comes to their mind. The speaker immediately comes to the topic of his own self-identity. Being the only person of color in his class, he thinks hard about his self-identity versus his peers. He uses his hobbies and wants to compare himself to the rest of his class, “Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love / I like to work, read, learn and understand life / I like a pipe for a Christmas present / or records- Bessie, bop, or Bach / I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like / the same things other folks like who are other races” (“Theme of English B” 21-26). Langston Hughes uses this to show that colored people are no different than everyone, they all have the same wants and likes. The most important part of the poem is when the speaker describes himself as part of the teacher:
You are white- / yet a part of me, as I am a part of you / That’s American / Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me / Nor do I often want to be a part of you / But we are, that’s true / As I learn from you / I guess you learn from me- / although you’re older- and white- / and somewhat more free (“Theme” 29-40).
Hughes is showing true American identity. In America, everyone learns from the people around them, regardless of race. The teacher is learning from the speaker, in being that the speaker is the only African American in the class. He will learn that a colored person is not any different from the rest of the students. Langston Hughes’ goal of this poem is to show that all people are the same, regardless of race.
After years of institutionalized racism and dashed dreams, some black Americans let their dreams die when they realize that the American Dream in only an elusive dream. The speaker of the poem “Harlem” is an African American who had given up on his dream. With all the limitations given to African Americans at that time, Hughes uses this poem as a motivational piece to support these African Americans to push through the adversity, and not give up on their dreams. The speaker starts with the line, “What happens to a dream deferred” (Harlem 1). He is setting up the rest of the poem to show what will happen when one gives up on a dream. Hughes uses imagery to get the African American population to really see and buy into the belief that no matter what, they should not give up on a dream. He also uses questions throughout the poem to help build pathos with the audience. Each analogy he uses displays a dark tone to show how a discarded dream makes each person feel, “Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load” (“Harlem” 9-10). This was a time when African Americans were still being treated with grave inequality, which would result in giving up on their individual dreams. Hughes knew that if they all gave up on their dreams, there would be no change and there would be no American Dream, so he wrote this poem as motivation to the black population to push through the hardships at their feet, and not give up on their dreams.
Art, in this case, poetry, can provide a lantern to guide the way in emotionally difficult times. Langston Hughes’s poems express the desires of a generation of people, yearning to both have a piece of the American Dream, and to achieve a place in society, a place at the table to share the communal loaf that America has to offer. His poems provide a voice for those who desire an America that is promised to everyone, regardless of color.
“American Dream | Definition of American Dream in US English by Oxford Dictionaries.” Oxford Dictionaries | English, Oxford Dictionaries, en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/us/american_dream.
Hughes, Langston. “Harlem.” Arguing about Literature: a Brief Guide, by John Schilb and John Clifford, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014.
Hughes, Langston. “Let America Be America Again.” Arguing about Literature: a Brief Guide, by John Schilb and John Clifford, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014.
Hughes, Langston. “Open Letter to the South.” Arguing about Literature: a Brief Guide, by John Schilb and John Clifford, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014.
Hughes, Langston. “Theme for English B.” Arguing about Literature: a Brief Guide, by John Schilb and John Clifford, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014.