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June 01, 2004

Whose America?

Word is that Candidate Kerry has decided to make a line from a Langston Hughes poem his campaign slogan. In truth, I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it is Langston Hughes. On the other hand, it's Kerry. On the whole I think I'm going to end up being negative about it primarily because we all know Kerry's a zillionaire who has got a lot of nerve appropriating this poem considering line #5.

Sentiment is not enough. My bogosity senses are tingling. Somebody help me. I could even accept this from Al Sharpton, but John Kerry? Something's wrong here. I don't know. Read it yourself and see if John Kerry comes to mind.

Let America Be America Again
Langston Hughes

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!

Posted by mbowen at June 1, 2004 05:17 PM

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Let America Be America Again from The Poor Man
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Tracked on June 2, 2004 05:17 PM


Hell no, John Kerry doesn't come to mind. Then again, he is seeking to be America's second black president and claims to love hip hop (sarcasm). Phoniness comes to mind here.

Posted by: shay at June 1, 2004 08:20 PM

not phoniness. the phrase is appropriate, and i've long believed that our corpus is more American than any other (the negro national anthem should be THE national anthem). but he is employing a selective reading to be sure.

Posted by: lks at June 1, 2004 08:39 PM

Kerry is almost the last thing that comes to mind when reading this. Third last, in fact. Bush is second and Cheney is dead last.

Posted by: P6 at June 2, 2004 07:51 AM

John Kerry is quoting the poem because those lines express an idea he wants to convey. He's not trying to say he's like Langston Hughes anymore than everyone who quotes Shakespeare is trying to tell you they're just like an Elizabethan Englishman, or anyone who quotes the Bible is pretending to be God. Quoting isn't appropriation, and this is a distinction I'd hope any blogger would appreciate as being very important.

Posted by: The Editors at June 2, 2004 09:43 AM

Cobb asked specifically if Kerry comes to mind when reading the poem, and the answer is "No." No one said anything about appropriation. But Kerry clearly chose the poem, written by a great black writer, to appeal to black Americans, whom he's clearly not reaching, if you believe the media.

Posted by: La Shawn Barber at June 2, 2004 09:48 AM

Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I think he truly finds inspiration in the meaning of the words. On the flip side, however, the poor man and the average person that wake up each day to make honest earnings and livings will probably scoff and look at it as some political strategy to appeal to the working class/minority vote. but to answer Cobb's question, No he definitely doesn't come to mind!

Posted by: L.A. Thompson at June 2, 2004 10:07 AM

La Shawn -

... we all know Kerry's a zillionaire who has got a lot of nerve appropriating this poem ...

Posted by: The Editors at June 2, 2004 10:28 AM

I could give him the benefit of the doubt if he was John Edwards, who at least had the common touch. Appropriation may be a strong term, but if I'm quoting Hamlet it should mean that I'm in a conundrum and can't make up my mind. If not, it's like somebody looking for $50 words saying "Hey check me out, I'm quoting Shakespeare." And that's why I think it falls flat for Kerry, because he obviously can't be trying to convince us that he's in Hughes' shoes (unless he's a gay black man), rather he's saying Hey I'm quoting Langston Hughes. If his choice shouldn't be subject to such a close reading, then it's just 5 words - sloganeering politics as usual.

He can't control the interpretation of his choice, and I think it's going to get him in trouble.

Posted by: Cobb at June 2, 2004 10:31 AM

Cobb - I disagree completely. Many people quote Hamlet quite extensively (actors playing Hamlet, for example), and no one questions their cred. He's a quotable fiction. People don't quote Shakespeare out of empathy with him or his characters, they quote it because Shakespeare had a way with words, and expressed what they wanted to say better than they could themselves. That's what Kerry's doing with Hughes, and that's what people are doing when they quote stuff. And, yeah, recontextualizing is part of that, and of course you are allowed to read it any way you want. But if people applied your standard generally we'd be in a lot of trouble. No one could ever quote Jesus without being the ultimate phony. Only incredibly rich people would be justified in quoting Byron. Nirvana cover bands would all have to kill themselves. Even with that last one, I think it would still be an overall negative.

Posted by: The Editors at June 2, 2004 11:21 AM

I can buy that, and I don't hold tightly to the standard. That's why I backed off 'appropriation' but I still think it's reasonable for blackfolks who may or may not feel that Kerry is reaching them to question whether he is quoting Hughes strictly for the text. Imagine that it was not Langston Hughes that wrote the poem but Bobby Seale. Or more appropriate, imagine it was the band Living Colour who had a song about getting from one America to another.

I think Kerry's wealth and background are part of a big issue for Democrats in general. The larger context is what limousine liberals get away with saying in their campaigns. Again, this I might have accepted from Jerry Brown or Dennis Kucinich. I just think that if Kerry means for us to look at the poem and this represents his attituded from a disgruntled left perspective, that he's going to have problems rather like Al Gore putting on plaid hunting jackets.

Like I said, I have mixed feelings. I wish lots more people would quote Langston Hughes. I wish presidential candidates could wear beards. But clean-shaven New England patricians like Kerry... well, you know what I'm saying.

Posted by: Cobb at June 2, 2004 11:39 AM

Can only blacks appreciate Langston's work? I'm not black nor rich but I remember being profoundly moved by his writing at a very young age. I don't begrudge Kerry being moved and/or using such a line in his speech, particularly if it says something to him that he wants to get across to others. Inspiration is where we find it.

Posted by: dejah thoris at June 2, 2004 01:07 PM

"well, you know what I'm saying."

No, I don't. Becuase Kerry is rich (what President besides Clinton wasn't) and a "patrician" (anyone who is a man and in the Senate is one) its wrong for him to use Hughes? Is this a Republican practising class warfare?

I seriously doubt that Kerry's use is an attempt to reach Black people since most black people (like most Americans) probably couldn't tell you who wrote the poem. Campaign slogans are advertising. They are inherently empty and meangingless. Let's leave it at that and not read too much into them.

Posted by: walter at June 2, 2004 02:20 PM

My bad. Blogging while working...

I think that Democrats break faith with the working poor because they don't support candidates *from* the people. That's what I was implying by the plaid shirt vs limousine liberal thing. And so I think efforts to speak to the concerns of impoverished Americans are necessarily compromised by Democrats like Kerry. I speak more about that here in Wishful Sedition:

My point is that if Democrats want to paint themselves in the colors of the downtrodden, they have a bunch of unpacking to do. Kerry, of this season's candidates, most of all.

I gave four examples of other democrats I think would sound more credible saying "I am the man who never got ahead/ The poorest worker bartered through the years."

So I am presuming that his is an empty and meaningless slogan, but if it isn't and he really means what is implied by the poem, then he has to face a lot more. Now Kerry may be just interpreting Hughes as a "can't we all just get along poet". More's the pity.

Any English scholars care to weigh in? Isn't there more than a hint of sarcasm in Hughes' voice?

Posted by: Cobb at June 2, 2004 02:45 PM

Cobb - I wish that we could get a candidate who wasn't born into wealth, too. And I think you're right that you can't totally divorce a quote from the original speaker (that's one of the points of quoting things, I think), and what's acceptable probably depends on the reader. It's an interesting discussion.

Posted by: The Cobb at June 2, 2004 03:32 PM

"The Cobb" was me. The cursor got away from me while I was typing.

Posted by: The Editors at June 2, 2004 03:33 PM

What's dubya's slogan?

"The Buck Stops There"?

Posted by: P6 at June 2, 2004 06:16 PM

Good grief! Did the great and powerful La Shawn mis-read the post (pay no attention to the woman behind the curtain)? My humble apologies for missing the word "appropriating", but the sentiment of my comment still stands. What Kerry is doing is good old-fashioned race pandering. Sadly many people will and have fallen for it.

Posted by: La Shawn Barber at June 3, 2004 02:52 AM


I respectfully disagree. If Kerry (or any public speaker for that matter) found a quote from a female writer that he thought expressed an idea he wanted to get across, would that be gender-pandering? If I use Langston Hughes in a project I'm writing and I'm not black, does that make me something I'm not?

Posted by: dejah thoris at June 3, 2004 11:15 AM

The use of a quotation, from Langston Hughes, Shakespeare or any other notable source, could convey one of several feelings.

"This is how I feel" - Many commenters seem to have taken this reading and, in this context, question how anyone of power, wealth, position and privilege could honestly express this feeling. While I agree that from my perspective it is absurd to attribute any legitimacy to this feeling, one must not discount the power of self-delusion. I am frequently amazed how some so readilly focus on the one thing wrong in their life and extrapolate it in their mind to represent the totality of their existence. One examples that immediately comes to mind is NOW, who despite the strong daily demonstrated accomplishments of women in America still seem to be completely sincere in portraying American women in the same context as the Burkha clad masses in Afghanistan. Or how about all those anti-war protesters who, while enjoying police protection, rant and rave about the totalitarian police state America is where any dissent is "crushed". Their sincerity does not make them right, just honest.

"This is a legitimate expression of a reality experienced, not by myself, but by many others" - This is obviously the meaning the Kerry campaign would like to convey. Just as one need not have been an ex-slave or even Black to understand that Frederick Douglass spoke from a vantage of truth, I don't think one necessarilly has to belong to any group in order to understand the ideas, if not the real feelings, expressed. This, in fact, is the beauty itself of written language.

"This is a feeling some have, and I will pander to it" - This, however, is the possible meaning that I believe has Cobb most unconfortable with Kerry's use of the line. This is the snake-oil salesman or televangelist that seeks to use one's own desires for a better truth against them. This is the get-rich-quick scam artist that will take your $10 and leave you with nothing but broken dreams. And this, too, is the possible meaning that makes me say "whatever". There have just been too many things to make me question John Kerry's sincerity on anything other than his desire to be elected.

Posted by: submandave at June 3, 2004 12:06 PM

"If Kerry (or any public speaker for that matter) found a quote from a female writer that he thought expressed an idea he wanted to get across, would that be gender-pandering?"

This is the real world, not a hypothetical one. Kerry is a liberal politician reportedly not reaching his base, black voters. That is a significant and key fact. What better way to feign concern and force attachment than quote from one of the great writers of the Harlem Renaissance? I'm sorry, but trying to analogize between a white politician vying for black votes picking such a poem and an ordinary white person doing so may work in theory, but not reality.

One of the great things about the USA is that we can respectfully disagree. As former a liberal-turned-conservative who finally saw the error of my ways, coupled with getting older and gaining more common sense as I age, I'm pretty set in my views unless offered convincing evidence to the contrary. And John Kerry isn't fit to give it.

Posted by: La Shawn Barber at June 3, 2004 01:18 PM

La Shawn,

I can see where you're coming from on this aspect of the Kerry use of the Hughes quote and respect it. I don't see it the same way as you, perhaps because I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I'm not of the school of thought that puts a politician or celebrity on a different pedestal solely because they're in the public eye. They're still human and they still are touched by things they see, say, read, or hear. Well, most of them anyway. If Kerry's touched by the Hughes quote, then so be it. At least he's not out filming a rap video...

It's Kerry's job this year to get elected, so pragmatically, I suppose I accept that he'll find ways to reach out to voter bases. It wouldn't surprise me to find Bush doing some shuffle to get black (or latino or female or whatever) voters, and I would probably snort in derision at his obvious ineptitude. But I just don't see it in Kerry yet.

I'm a middle-of-the-roader politically, with a strong fiscal conservative streak (probably comes from running my own business), just to let you know where I stand politically. I play a leftie wild-ass radical on the 'net as a way of holding a mirror up to what I see as wild-ass radicalism on the right.

Posted by: dejah thoris at June 3, 2004 05:01 PM

usually when folks pander to the black folk they appear in a black church talking about soul, and spirit, and feelings. dean who i liked did it (to my chagrin). clinton who i didn't like did it (to my chagrin). edwards, gephardt, you name it.

whatever kerry did, it wasn't pandering to black folk. i know democratic pandering when i see it. he'll do the pandering thing later of course. (watch for his picture in the times in a black church.) he just didn't do it here.

Posted by: lks at June 3, 2004 07:09 PM

Iks: Kerry pandered in black church's too, but I assume you know that. In fact, he made me so angry misapplying the word of God to trash a believer, I wrote about it. Instapundit linked to it and I ended up with about 52 comments. It's called "Kerry and James 2" and there's a link to it in the sidebar of my blog under "favorite posts."

Posted by: La Shawn Barber at June 4, 2004 02:43 AM