The Voyage of Captain Obvious

Grading is satanic

Saturday, June 24, 2006

And now for something more serious

I've been thinking through my place in this country a lot recently as a result of being abroad, and I thought that now might be an appropriate time to quote from a poem:

Let America Be America Again, by 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!

I absolutely love this poem, and always have, from my first reading of it. In these stanzas is captured quite a bit of what I've always thought about my homeland. I certainly haven't been disadvantaged while I've lived here, but I've always felt quite conflicted about how I feel about the idea of the United States of America, and my homeland's actual past. At times there has been a dynamic tension between the two, and at times, there has been outright contradiction between them.

When I was younger, it always was the idea of America that was the basis of my pride in the country. The United States supposedly was a nation founded not out of a primordial tribalism, nor out of a series of complex treaties and compromises, but rather, out of an ideal--that every person should have the right to determine their own future, that every person should have the equal opportunity to have their own individual voice heard with an equal tenor and with an equal volume, and that there is no natural nobility in this country nor any other. I saw in American history a consistent push toward this ideal, first with the rejection of King's rule, the adoption of an elected government, the abolition of property requriements on voting, the abolition of slavery, the direct election of senators, women's suffrage, and the banning of poll taxes and grandfather clauses and segregation.

But the mere presence of all this progress already indicated the beginnings of an essential truth--America was not true to it's ideals at any point. There was always a dynamic tension between what this country was supposed to be, and what it was. Partially, one can argue that this is the consequence of founding a place on an ideal and stupidly choosing to place it in the physical world. But that is an explanation, not an excuse. And to pretend that this evolution is over is madness.

Further, there have always been elements within this country that oppose the general thrust of this movement. Ever since the first Alien and Sedition acts were passed by the Adams administration*, there have always been very powerful voices within the United States that held beliefs contradictory to the very basis of this country--that we are not all equal, that there are some voices that need to be silenced. Every period of United States history has been poisioned by these characters, who at times even were the dominant forces in the country (i.e., the Mexican-American war of 1848). The Northern leaders during the civil war simultaneously seemed to believe in "Manifest Destiny" and in abolition--the Consitution demanded equality, but it also was completely fine to expand westward and subjugate whoever was there.

And the sitution is no different, whether you have McCarthy paralyzing the country, or you have our current "team of justice" at the helm--those who seek to crush individual liberties, to play off of our differences, to scare us of the other, are the very people who most proudly wrap themselves in the American flag, even though they are the ones that are doing ythe very most to kill the real United States--the ideal one that sits in our head, but isn't... just... actualized... yet.

And so is the evolution that is American history. The Revolution and the Bill of rights tempered with Sedition acts and slavery; abolition with expansion and Presidential power grabs; the Northern victory in the Civil War with a harsh reconstruction that worsened the situation for blacks; the construction of Industrial might with an insane concentration of wealth combined with a vicious stomping of immigrants, esp. Chinese and Catholics; the rise of mass media and it's ability to inform the masses with the rise of demagoguery and the Spanish-American war; the stopping of Hitler with the rise of MNC oppression of brown peoples throughout the world and Japanese internment; through to the willingness of the States to stand up against the USSR, set against the insanity of Vietnam and the support of oppressive, but ostensibly anti-communist regimes, often at the cost of destroying democratically elected pro-Soviet government.

And so, we are left at today. How can an American take stock of their history? The good is significant, but it is always tempered by bad. It is always tinged with something inherently contradictory to what America should stand for. I, for one think that true patriotism lies in showing this contradiction, and demanding that America be America again, that we not accept any of this omnipresent bullshit anymore, and that we take this country 'back.' I have no patience for those who argue that, in order to keep us safe, we need only abandon our liberties and single out a single ethnic, religious or political group for second class treatment. I'll close with another, much more well known piece from the 30s, written by one Woody Gutrie, who I have shown great enthusiasm for elswhere in this space:

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

As I was walking a ribbon of highway
I saw above me an endless skyway
I saw below me a golden valley
This land was made for you and me


I've roamed and rambled and I've followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
And all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me


The sun comes shining as I was strolling
The wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
The fog was lifting a voice come chanting
This land was made for you and me


As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tress passin'
But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!


In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me.

This land, this country is an idea, that was made for all of us--that we are free, equal individuals with an equal voice, and an equal ability to choose our fate. This basic belief is what colours all of my opinions regarding domestic politics. Perhaps I'll follow this up with some applications to today and our current superhero of a president.

*and really, before--starting with the Framers writing the constitution so that it "permitted" slavery


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