Langston Hughes was well known for his portrayal of African American life style during the early part of the 20th century. His poetry specifically focused on the way many African Americans' lives were at the time, and expressed feelings and frustrations he along with many others had. His works helped contribute to the Harlem Renaissance, which was a time when African Americans began to express themselves in ways such as literature, art, and music. Hughes' works inspired many other black authors, and he will always be remembered as an important figure in literature.
In Hughes' poem "Let America Be American Again," Hughes shows the frustration and pain he feels about how he is looked upon in American society. It is easy to assume he writes these feelings as a part of his personal life experiences. This poem is about what Hughes wants America to be, and about what it is in reality. He describes a place where people are not ruled by an upper class, and a place that is free with total equality. He stresses that equality is a must and everyone should be granted liberty and given opportunity to live a better life. Although Hughes describes some of the dreams he has at the beginning of the poem, he ends with lines that describe the reality as he sees it:
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.") (11-16)
It's unfortunate that for most of the time this country has been in existence, blacks have been treated as second-class citizens and believed to be barley human when compared to whites, states Nancy Tischler in Black Masks (18).
In some of the next few lines Hughes begins describing who he feels the black man is in American society. He describes some of the roles they are given; for example, he states, "I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil, / I am the worker to the machine" (31, 32). In many works in early American literature, these are some of the occupations blacks were portrayed to have. Black characters were also seen as loyal servants to white families, where they worked as cooks, and as maids, according to author Sterling Brown (17). They were also depicted as second-class citizens whose lives didn't matter to whites. Even writers like Mark Twain would describe the death of a black man as something unimportant and not much of a loss (67). It's easy to understand why Hughes writes with such emotion and in some case's anger.
Other early writings portray blacks as almost always illiterate, and according to Tischler "almost completely incomprehensible to the middle or upper-class" (15). Hughes didn't stereotype African Americans, but wrote the reality as he saw it. At that time it was very important for African Americans to write about lifestyle through their own point of view. Before this time only white authors portrayed blacks in literature. Many white authors would exaggerate descriptions of the physical appearance of a black person, and in doing so would give the reader the idea that blacks were inferior (19). This poem provides enough evidence that Hughes didn't want blacks to be viewed as inferior anymore. He makes statements that say he wants America to be his home, and that he wants it to be free. Hughes is simply asking to be given the chance that should already have been given to him and others:
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--. (62-65)
He sees America as a place where everyone could live without feeling inferior to one another. The equality and freedom he wants is the dream he has and wants to come true. However, he knows that if any changes are to be made, it would have to be with people standing up for themselves instead of just sitting around and accepting the abuse: "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" (80-82).
This poem examined the dreams that Hughes would like to see come true in his lifetime. He does not ask for much, only for acceptance and equality in American society. The title "Let America Be America Again," doesn't mean let America go back to what it used to be. It means let America be something that it has not yet become.
Brown, Sterling. The Negro in American Fiction. New York: Kennikat, 1937.