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‘Let America Be America Again’: The Harlem Renaissance in the Age of Black Lives Matter

9 November 2020

Laura Ryan, Independent Scholar

In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the worldwide protests that followed, a CBS News item featured a 17-year-old African American poet reciting a portion of Langston Hughes’ 1936 poem “Let America Be America Again”. This was set against a collage of images of Black Lives Matter demonstrations and memorials to Floyd alongside black and white photographs showing the scarred bodies of slaves, downtrodden immigrants and Native American families.  At the end of the two-minute piece, the earnest newscaster concluded: ‘The words of Langston Hughes, still very relevant today.’

I came across this CBS piece while preparing to teach a course on the Harlem Renaissance and its contemporary resonances to a group of secondary school students (over Zoom, naturally) in the early summer of this year. I had taught the course before, but never with the sense of urgency or responsibility that I felt during those hours reading and discussing Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” (1919), Alain Locke’s “The New Negro” (1925) or Hughes’ “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926) as across the world Black Lives Matter protests and counter-protests continued. The point of the course had been to think through the contemporary resonances of the Harlem Renaissance (it involved Beyoncé, of course), culminating in the final essay question: ‘What can we learn from the Harlem Renaissance in 2020?’ This article, in a roundabout way, is concerned with the very same question. If the words of Langston Hughes remain so pertinent today, how can returning and attending to them – and to those of other Black modernists – help us to push towards a future in which they are not so relevant? Put more plainly, how can they help us to address the systemic racism and other structural issues that have persisted from Hughes’ day to our own?    

“Let America Be America Again” is the product of a troubling moment both for Hughes personally and for the nation he addressed.  At the time of the poem’s composition, his Broadway play, Mulatto, had just opened to caustic reviews.[1] Embarrassed and dejected, he was driven to escape New York and headed to Ohio to see his mother, who had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer; it was during this train journey in October 1935 that he was moved to write his ‘authentic anthem of the Depression’.[2] The resulting (somewhat ambivalent) poem critiques the lauded idea of America as a land of liberty and equality for all. Though its title seems to mirror the rhetoric of right-wing American politics today, “Let America Be America Again” is in fact an ideal rejoinder to Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’, a slogan that assumes the vague pre-existence of a manifestly ‘great’ nation now diminished.[3] The poem begins by employing the established tropes of the ‘American Dream’, of ‘the pioneer on the plain / Seeking a home where he himself is free’ in a land where ‘opportunity is real, and life is free, / Equality is in the air we breathe.’[4] But a voice in parentheses affirms that this ideal of ‘America’ has never been universal: ‘(America never was America to me.)’, ‘(There’s never been equality for me, / Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)’.[5]

As this voice ‘that mumbles in the dark’ emerges from the shadows to speak, it identifies itself with ‘the poor white, fooled and pushed apart’, ‘the Negro bearing slavery’s scars’, ‘the red man driven from the land’ and ‘the immigrant clutching the hope I seek’.[6] Hughes was not only concerned with the plight of African Americans in this poem, but with all of America’s disenfranchised peoples, crushed by capitalism. By this time, he had spent time in the Soviet Union and been astounded and encouraged by the changes wrought by revolution; in the USSR, he observes, ‘Russian and native, Jew and gentile, white and brown, live and work together’ and he can board a train without giving a thought to his race.[7]

The CBS News item described above is not the first time Hughes’ poetry has been spotlighted in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2015, a video featuring Danny Glover reading Hughes’ 1938 poem “Kids Who Die” was published by the group Color of Change, with references to some of the young African Americans (Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin among them) killed in recent years.[8] A year later (and two days after the fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina) in September 2016, The New York Times dedicated a whole page to Hughes’ 1926 poem “I, Too”. Hughes, it would seem, has become one of the go-to poets in moments of heightened racial tensions: a safe pair of hands when crisis strikes and our own words elude us.

In a wider sense, too, the Harlem Renaissance itself has come to represent something of a cosy, expedient symbol. In some contexts, evoking the Harlem Renaissance has become an easy cover for a failure to go further in expanding and diversifying. Need some more ‘diversity’ in your modernism course? – add some Hughes, maybe a bit of Nella Larsen, Richard Bruce Nugent if you’re feeling ambitious. In the wider cultural imagination, the key figures of the Harlem Renaissance – and Hughes especially – have been held up as American icons and trailblazers. Their words and images today appear on coffee mugs, fridge magnets, t-shirts (rather ironically, given many of these writers’ repudiation of capitalism and its associated paraphernalia); they are immortalised in street names, cultural festivals and public art. None of this is in itself bad; these artists deserve such attention and much of it is long overdue (and I’ve enjoyed a Hughes-branded coffee mug myself in my time). Issues arise, however, when iconic status fails to allow for nuance, when complex or problematic aspects of these writers’ lives and works are – for want of a better term – whitewashed. Indeed, several aspects of Hughes’ life have often been occluded; as Emily Bernard notes, his ‘status as a cultural hero, historically and presently, depends upon a public “whitewashing”’ of both ‘his presumed homosexuality, and the degree and quality of his involvement with whites’.[9] We might add to this Hughes’ political beliefs and his involvement in the Communist Party. Though Hughes likely never joined the CPUSA, he lent his voice and name to Communist causes and organizations, publicly supported the Soviet Union and often referenced these aspects of his life and political belief in his work (especially in his poetry of the mid-late 1930s).[10] However, when poems like “Let America Be America Again” and “Kids Who Die” are recited today, it is most often with their overt references to radical politics redacted.

In many ways, it is unsurprising that the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has coincided with a renewed interest in writers like Hughes, Hurston and McKay, and even in the release of never-before-published works (including Hurston’s Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave in 2018 and McKay’s Amiable with Big Teeth and Romance in Marseille in 2017 and 2020, respectively). The core purpose of the New Negro movement, as it was then known, was essentially to demonstrate, through art, the value and the beauty of Black lives. Where the political means to make change were unavailable, art, music and literature had to do the job. Hughes’ “I, Too” in particular embodies this idea, beginning with ‘I, too, sing America’ and ending with ‘I, too, am America’.[11] The latter phrase is engraved in large letters on the wall of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.. As Christopher J. Lebron notes, in this shift ‘from vocalizing the ideal to embodying it, Hughes affirmed the radical aim of the Renaissance to present to white Americans what had been true all along: that blacks are humans worthy of respect and dignity, that black lives matter.’[12]

“I, Too” was written at the height of the Harlem Renaissance and is infused by its lofty ideals and ambitions, by the belief that those who exclude the ‘darker brother’ will swiftly change their ways: ‘They’ll see how beautiful I am / And be ashamed—‘.[13] By the time he wrote “Let America Be America Again” and “Kids Who Die”, what would later be known as the Harlem Renaissance had already largely dwindled to a memory and Hughes had lost faith in the ideals and aims of the movement.[14] He may have become disillusioned with Locke’s New Negro idea, but he had evidently not given up on the American dream. Thus “Let America Be America Again” ends, finally, in hope for the future. In the depths of a national and personal depression, Hughes remains confident that change is imminently possible, even inevitable, that America can be made 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![15]

Having dispelled the idea of the American Dream as a universal truth, he declares determinedly that one day, quite simply, it ‘will be’. In similar fashion, “Kids Who Die” ends with the announcement that ‘the day will come’:

 When the marching feet of the masses
 Will raise for you a living monument of love,
 And joy, and laughter,
 And black hands and white hands clasped as one,
 And a song that reaches the sky—
 The song of the life triumphant
 Through the kids who die.[16] 

In many ways, the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 have embodied this hopeful spirit, this image of ‘black hands and white hands clasped as one’. But today we are conscious that the American Dream and its ideals were forged through the labour of enslaved Black bodies. America is in need of a new dream; this is what Black Lives Matter offers.

Were he alive today, would Hughes still be hopeful about the possibilities of the American Dream? What about Zora Neale Hurston, Hughes’ sometime friend and collaborator, who was only a generation removed from slavery, but refused to dwell upon it, declaring: ‘I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all but about it.’?[17] After all these years, would Hurston still be defiant in her refusal to embrace bitterness and resentment? What would they – and other Black artists of their generation – make of our current situation? Hughes’ work, of course, was not always tinged with optimism; The Ways of White Folks, a 1934 short story collection examining American race relations and inspired in part by his travels in the Soviet Union, leaves very little room for hopefulness. And in “Tired” (1930), Hughes expressed what many around the world are surely feeling at the present moment: ‘I’m so tired of waiting / Aren’t you, / For the world to become good / And beautiful and kind?’[18]

So what, finally, can we learn from Hughes’ work and from the Harlem Renaissance in 2020? We can learn (and despair), I suppose, that things have changed so little as to render a poem like “Let America Be America Again” not only relevant but seemingly prescient of present circumstances. It has become easy to evoke ‘the words of Langston Hughes’, to pass the baton back to a poem of eighty or ninety years ago without attending to it closely. There is a danger in resorting to truisms that acknowledge the continued relevance of a poem or an artist or a movement without much more than a surface engagement with it. If we are to take anything substantial from this poem – or from any other Harlem Renaissance text – we need to attend more carefully to its meanings and contexts, to its lesser-quoted sections, to the aspects that might trouble our sensibilities today.


[1] The play ran for eleven months and, despite negative reviews, was popular with audiences.

[2] Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes, Volume I: 1902-1941, I, Too, Sing America, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) p. 315.

[3] In 2004, John Kerry used ‘Let America Be America Again’ as a campaign slogan in his bid for presidency, prompting attacks from Republicans who cited Hughes’ communist sympathies.

[4] Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”, The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, ed. by Arnold Rampersad (New York: Vintage, 1995) p. 189.

[5] Ibid, pp. 189-190.

[6] Ibid, p. 190.

[7] Hughes,  A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia, The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, Volume 9: Essays on art, race, politics, and World Affairs, ed. by Christopher C. De Santis (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002) p. 74.

[8] Color of Change, “Kids Who Die”, 5 August 2015, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Mct8UB4XhY&gt; [Accessed 28 October 2020].

[9] Emily Bernard, “A Familiar Strangeness: The Spectre of Whiteness in the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement”, New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement, ed. by Lisa Gail Collins and Margo Natalie Crawford (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006) pp. 255-272 (p. 265); Most notable among his involvements with whites was surely his relationship with Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy patron he called ‘Godmother’. He had entered into a formal agreement with Mason in November 1927, by which she agreed to give him $150 per month; Hughes’ work would remain his own, but she was to be consulted on all important aspects of it. This arrangement allowed Hughes to live a relatively privileged life and he appears to have been truly fond of his elderly patron, but the pressure to please her was draining and he eventually severed ties from her in 1930 (an experience he found extremely painful).

[10] Hughes was brought before Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 1953, where he denied having ever been a Communist Party member and was forced to renounce all previous ties to the USSR.

[11] Hughes, “I, Too”, Collected Poems, p. 46.

[12] Christopher J. Lebron, The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017) p. 53.

[13] Hughes, “I, Too”, Collected Poems, p. 46.

[14] No firm start or end date can be comfortably ascribed to the Harlem Renaissance. Some of the most important and well-known works associated with the movement (including Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God) were published well after its heyday in the mid-late 1920s.

[15] Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”, Collected Poems, p. 191.

[16] Hughes, “Kids Who Die”, Collected Poems, p. 211.

[17] Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”, I Love Myself when I Am Laughing … and Then Again when I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader, ed. by Alice Walker (New York: Feminist Press at CUNY, 1979) p. 153.

[18] Hughes, “Tired”, Collected Poems, p. 135.

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