The American Dream in the 1930s
For my cultural product, I wanted to do something that concerned the Civil Rights Era, yet at the same time I wasn’t quite sure what I could do that we hadn’t already covered in class; we had already performed close reads on famous civil rights speeches such as “The Ballot or the Bullet” and covered in detail many aspects of desegregation. Because of this, I ended up backtracking to the 1930s, decades before the Brown v. Board of Education ruling and in the midst of The Great Depression, and began reading some of the works that were written before the Civil Rights Movement; specifically, the poem “Let America Be America Again,” by poet James Mercer Langston Hughes.
Langston Hughes was born in 1902 and began his career in writing for the NAACP during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, protesting social conditions and portraying the lives of African Americans, and would write throughout the Civil Rights Movement until his death in 1967 (Ramperstad 418). He wrote this poem in 1935, as one of his many works. The poem initially takes the form of a nameless speaker wishing that America would be the land of freedom and equality that it should be (Hughes). But as the nameless speaker speaks, he says off to the side that America was “never America to me” and that there has “never been equality for me” (Hughes). When another speaker steps in and asks the unknown man to identify himself, the man takes over the rest of the poem, claiming that he is the “poor white… the Negro… the red man… the immigrant” and all the other disadvantaged who cannot achieve the American dream (Hughes). Hughes goes on to further claim that for all the work and patriotism they have shown, they are given nothing for their efforts except the “[American] dream that’s almost dead.” He finishes the poem by saying that despite all that, America is not beyond redemption, and that the people can and will revive the American dream for what it should truly be.
The poem, written in 1935, during a period of activism from the NAACP. My personal impression of this period was that African Americans were winning small civil rights battles and slowly building up influence and gaining momentum. This was the period when NAACP was setting the foundations for the much louder Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, launching anti-lynching campaigns, opposing the election of racist government nominees, and fighting segregated education through the American legal system (Janken). Many of their movements were met with success; the anti-lynching campaigns culminated in a federal anti-lynching law that passed despite resistance from Southern senators, and the fight for desegregated education set the groundwork for the argument that the Brown v. Board decision would be based upon more than a decade later (Janken). Hughes is therefore contributing to this pre-Civil Rights movement era with his writings for equal opportunity and privilege.
While the poem discusses racial discrimination, Hughes doesn’t seem to mention any specific examples of disadvantages minorities are given, instead opting to state that they must fight for freedom from “those who live like leeches on the people’s lives.” He also says that America is entangled in “one’s own greed” (Hughes) Looking at the time period, I would make a reasonable guess that Hughes was referring to what George Lipsitz calls a “possessive investment in whiteness,” or the fact that being white has inherent advantages that come at the expense of minorities (Pittman). For example, in 1924 that realtors subscribed to a “national code” saying that individuals who would depreciate property values should not be introduced to a neighborhood (Lipsitz 25-26). In other words, African Americans and minorities would usually be denied housing to white neighborhoods upon the basis of race; because they were minorities that were inherently “lesser” than their white counterparts. Furthermore, realtors would tend to engage in actions known as redlining and steering, in which banks denied loans to areas with many racial minorities and in which realtors only sold homes in minority neighborhoods to minorities (Lipsitz 26). Another example would be the creation of the Social Security Act of 1935 to combat the poverty from The Great Depression. Even though African Americans and other minorities suffered the most from the depression, the act “exempted from coverage” the jobs that were most likely to be worked by them and labor unions refused to end its policy of racial discrimination (Lipsitz 38). Hence all the advantages many whites received in terms of better housing, better loaning rates, better education, and government benefits generally came at the expense of everyone else (Pittman). These are examples the “leeches” and “greed” that Hughes identifies in his poem; because being white generally creates an advantage at the expense of minorities, there would be an inherent interest for whites to use and protect that advantage for other whites.
My personal interpretation of another reason why this poem is important is based in the context that it was written after World War I. Many African Americans believed that by making sacrifices for the war effort it would be possible for them to progress in terms of equality (Williams). However, upon their return, whites would quickly reassert white supremacy and privilege despite the fact that African Americans had put their lives on the line as fellow countrymen, causing a sense of disillusionment in the black community (Williams). Langston Hughes’s poem in this context is therefore a direct translation of this disillusionment; for “all the flags we’ve hung,” or in other words, for all the patriotism they’ve shown, they have received nothing (Hughes). Their undeniable contribution to the war effort was denied. I think this would’ve made the poem even more relevant following World War II, when African Americans once again fought but once again returned home to a country that still didn’t grant full civil equality. They would’ve returned around 1945, near the beginning of the civil rights movement. I think another important aspect of Hughes poem is that he places the responsibility of reviving the American dream in the hands of the minorities and blacks, otherwise calling for a movement towards equality.
My personal reason for choosing this cultural product was that the topics it covered, specifically the American dream and the general impossibility of achieving it for minorities at the time. Both of my parents migrated from China in hopes of finding opportunity; before coming here, they worked as rice farmers in the countryside with dirt roads and oxen. But because they migrated here, they were able to find good jobs and get a good education, in turn being able to send me to a good school. I really feel that it is very possible to work your way to success, and the fact that there were people who weren’t able to, and still aren’t able to do the same is very depressing to me.
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, America! 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
Lipsitz, George. “Law and Order: Civil Rights Laws and White Privilege.” The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit From Identity Politics. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1998. 24-46. Print.
Janken, Kenneth R. “The Civil Rights Movement: 1919-1960s.” Freedom’s Story, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.
Hughes, Langston. “Let America Be America Again.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, July 1936. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.
Pittman, LaShawnDa. “Lipsitz- Housing & Education.” AFRAM 101. University of Washington. 24 Nov. 2015. Lecture.
Williams, Chad. “African Americans and World War I.” Africana Age. New York Public Library. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.