Posts Tagged ‘Langston Hughes’


a wall I saw today

Let America Be America Again

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.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

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–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home–
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
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 all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay–
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME–
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!

by Langston Hughes (1902-1967)


Read more Langston Hughes and find other poems for inspiration, reflection and perhaps even motivation at https://www.poets.org/


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“Out of little acorns, big oak trees grow.”

My day began with a simple task, to research the illustrator and several of the poets included in a book that I had picked up for nothing at a roadside restaurant.  By the time the day ended, I had learned amazing things about the people and practices of times long gone, and I know my research has yet to end.  Let me start by telling you about the book.

Golden Slippers An Anthology of Negro Poetry for Young Readers is a 1941 compilation of 100-plus poems arranged by Arna Bontemps with drawings by Henrietta Bruce Sharon. The first line of the first poem, “Dawn” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, drew me in: “An Angel, robed in spotless white, bent down and kissed the sleeping Night.” Of the many African American poets cited, Dunbar, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen move me most. The poems of Langston Hughes are bright and full of whimsy, Cullen’s full of pain, and Dunbar somewhere in between.  Yet nearly all are as deep as the rivers about which Hughes has written so eloquently.

The black and white drawings I didn’t find particularly stirring with the exception of one or two, but I decided to research the artist anyway because you never know what you’ll find. First, I stumbled upon an exchange of letters between Langston Hughes and art critic and photographer Carl Van Vechten.

In letters exchanged in November 1941, through which the two men engage in a dialogue about all aspects of African American art, they revisit the race of the Golden Slippers illustrator. Van Vechten says, “I question the taste of the selection in many respects. WHY should young readers be invited to read Countee’s Incident: Baltimore, for instance?” The illustration to which he refers is of a little white boy sticking his tongue out at a little black boy.

Langston Hughes responds that he would ask his friend, Arna Bontemps, about the illustrator’s race, but he thought she was white, “she draws heads and feet as if she were.” Hughes goes on to discuss the illustrations for one of his upcoming books and makes note that the illustrator must get the hair right. “… I am sure the [E. McKnight] Kauffer drawings are charming. But still, if they come out with NO hair on their heads- … my Negro public–whom I respect and like–will not be appreciative. I wrote as much to Blanche [Knopf] when I first saw the samples. Harlem just isn’t nappy headed any more … And colored folks don’t want no stuff out of an illustrator on that score.” Later, in a December letter, Hughes tells Van Vechten, “I liked Kauffer’s pictures very much. And the hair is there …”

Regardless of how one interprets the complexities around representation of African American hair, there’s no doubt that Kauffer produced some powerful images as an illustrator.

Perhaps the power of Kauffer’s imagery stems from the fact that what he produced was not a strict visual recasting of the author’s words, but more an expression of what the author’s words generated in him , a point that Van Vecht makes to Hughes in one his letters.: “The whole significance of the illustrator’s art lies in its utter subjectivity; all that we ask of him is his own interpretation of a poem, story, or novel. An illustration should … light up the creation of the poet with the strictly personal illumination that emanates from the painter. The more startling that vision is, the more completely it expresses the personality of the painter, the greater will be its importance. In a word it is a matter of complete indifference that the poet shall be able to say, “Yes, that indeed is how I see it.” What really matters is his saying, “Ah, so that’s how you see it.””

But what about Henrietta Bruce Sharon? Van Vecht may have taken issue with her drawings in the Golden Slippers, but what she went on to do with her drawings would bring solace to those most in need.  More to follow …


Excerpt from Remember Me to Harlem


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