Donald Trump has been a source of vile political messages since he began his campaign for president of the U.S. Among countless other offenses, he has called migrants from Mexico rapists, refugees from Syria terrorists, and called for a national registry for all followers of Islam. He has done all this under the campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” which is exactly the sort of nationalistic bullshit those of us who grew up in the Bush years have come to expect our oppressive politics to come wrapped in (USA Patriot Act, anyone?).
The problem is that Trump and his supporters are using a definition of “great” that is exactly the opposite if you’re not a native-born, white, straight, cis, English-speaking man. Their definition of “great” includes a nostalgia for a monopoly of power many people have worked very hard to dismantle. Their idea of the American Dream is our nightmare.
As many have observed, “Make America Great Again” is a racist dog whistle for “Make America White Again”- it is, literally, a patriotic hat on a selfish, oppressive hack.
But not only does such a slogan lack subtlety; it also lacks originality. In fact, Langston Hughes wrote the perfect response to it in his 1935 poem, “Let America Be America Again.”
It begins much like Trump’s slogan, with an exhortation for our country to return to some mythical past, full of lip service to “freedom” and “dreams,” images of pioneers and criticism of tyranny.
But beginning as a whisper, a parenthetical aside, the people left out of that myth speak up, and slowly insert themselves into the narrative. “America never was America to me,” they insist. Given a chance to speak, they weave a story of the greatness they envision for America, a truly inclusive greatness.
I’ve copied the poem in full below, because every American deserves to read it, and read it repeatedly. The next time you hear someone say, “Make America Great Again,” tell them “America never was America 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!