"Let America be America again / Let it be the dream it used to be," wrote Langston Hughes, the gay black Harlem Renaissance poet, in 1935.
He might as well have been writing today in response to President-elect Donald J. Trump. His followers wear his motto above their foreheads: "Make America Great Again." Trump's surprising win has made many Americans question what it means to be American. It's a question Hughes explored in "Let America Be America Again," a poem that resurfaced in the 2004 election, and one that is relevant now.
Martin Luther King Jr. borrowed from the same poem in his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech. "America never was America to me," he read from Hughes's poem during the March on Washington. The American dream was never a done deal. It's not historical, it's aspirational.
The America that Hughes aspires to isn't the one being sold nowadays by Trump. It's a country shared by African-Americans, the white working class, immigrants, and Native Americans. There are two speakers in Hughes's poem, one that defines America in idealistic and patriotic terms, while the other talks back, as the one who is being left out of the American dream:
"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."
America has always thrived on a narrative of potentiality. Despite Trump's comments about immigrants, they aren't deterred in choosing this country in search of a better life. The novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes America as having "always been aspirational to me."
"Even when I chafed at its hypocrisies, it somehow always seemed sure, a nation that knew what it was doing, refreshingly free of that anything-can-happen existential uncertainty so familiar to developing nations," wrote Adichie.
But not anymore.
Trump's "Make America Great Again" phrase reaches for a nostalgic past that he believes must resurface. Make it great again, he says. But when was it great?
In an interview, Trump described the 1940s and the 1950s as an idealized time when "we were not pushed around, we were respected by everybody, we had just won a war, we were pretty much doing what we had to do." But Hughes says in his poem, written just a bit earlier, "America was never America to me." When we wax about the so-called home of the free, Hughes chimes in:
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."
This is where the Hughes and Trump followers collide, in that both lament that the American dream is threatened, just for different reasons. Hughes say it was never realized, while Trump says it's a thing of the past. Trump hasn't exactly defined what will make America great again, but he did release his 100-day action plan "to Make America Great Again." His plan includes removing "more than 2 million criminal illegal immigrants from the country," a cancellation of "every unconstutional executive action, memorandum, and order issued by President Obama," and "allowing the Keystone XL pipeline to move forward," among other ideas.
Instead of defining what will make America great again by what an individual adds to this nation or by shared values, Trump defines it as subtraction. Remove immigrants, cancel executive orders from Obama that protected LGBT people, and allow a pipeline that could harm the environment. That will Make America Great Again.
Whereas Hughes describes in detail what makes America what it is. That one of the speakers in his poem doesn't feel like America includes him is crucial to sustaining the idea of the American dream. Hughes writes of a time when "opportunity is real" and equality should be "in the air we breathe." Despite it not including him, Hughes' speaker remains optimistic that America will be his.
"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!"
That in-between space is what makes America great. The air of potential persists. Jose Antonio Vargas, the gay undocumented immigrant and journalist, related to that feeling even now in his widely circulated op-ed "What Does It Mean to Be an American?" Vargas wrote, "What it means to be an American is less about who you are than what you are about — how you live your life, how you contribute to this country, how you pledge allegiance to a flag hoping and praying it will make room for you."
When Obama first ran for president, he campaigned on an aspirational message of hope and change. His election made many feel proud to be American and to make history in the process. With Trump, Americans are again rethinking, What does it mean to be American? Many are asking themselves, How can the same country that elected Obama choose Trump?
This famous Hughes poem isn't the only time he helped define what it means to be American for those left outside of the mainstream. There's "I, Too," which he wrote in 1926, in response to the gay poet Walt Whitman's 1860 poem "I Hear America Singing." Though Hughes isn't directly referring to "I Hear America Singing" in this poem, the voice is reminiscent. It's this same idea that both Whitman and Hughes explored in their poems all those years ago. It's fair to say they were writing about different Americas while living in the same America.
That's a divide that sometimes only feels worsened by modernity. The rise of fake news and the lack of trust many Americans have in mainstream media is born in the online bubble where many of us live. Our Facebook feeds are usually tailored to our political leanings, whether that be right, left, or center. Our friends on social media tend to reflect those interests. There's a lack of communication between those who voted for Trump and those who didn't.
If America is going to be America again, then we can't keep living separately. Like another great gay writer, James Baldwin once said, “I love America more than any other country in this world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."