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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

April 17, 2019: Patriots’ Day Texts: “Let America Be America Again”

[Only a couple New England states celebrate Patriots’ Day, which officially pays tribute to the colonial Minutemen who helped begin the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord. But the holiday offers a chance to think about patriotism in America more broadly, which I’ll do this week, starting with my annual Patriots’ Day post, continuing through a series on critically patriotic texts, and leading up to an update on my new AmericanStudying book!]
On how Langston Hughes’s fiery poem helps us challenge a superficially similar slogan.
On the surface, Donald Trump’s campaign (and administration) slogan “Make America Great Again” might seem to fit the bill for the concept of critical patriotism on which both this series and much of my recent work focus. Even if you’re not a longstanding reader of this blog, or friend of mine, or someone who knows me in any capacity whatsoever, however, you’re likely aware that there is precisely nothing about Trump’s slogan that appeals to me. Obviously that has a good deal to do with the person and campaign and administration behind it, but even in terms of the phrase itself, I would say that I disagree strenuously with its interpretation of three of the four words. That is, Trump’s vision of America, his sense of what has made the nation great, and his understanding of a past to which we should aim to return, are all to my mind equally constructed, mythic, and white supremacist. All of that means that his vision of how we should achieve the phrase’s goals is also, as the last 2+ years have more than amply demonstrated, pretty divisive and destructive and horrific, meaning I suppose that I even disagree with his particular version of the word “make.”
The first stanza of Langston Hughes’s 1936 poem “Let America Be America Again” suggests a similarly mythic vision of America: “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.” But the next, one line, parenthetical stanza immediately and brutally undermines that opening: “(America never was America to me.)” That bracing rebuke echoes one of the most striking individual images from the 2016 presidential campaign: the young African American woman, Krystal Lake, whose “America Was Never Great” hat went viral in May 2016. Hughes’s poem certainly expresses that perspective, especially in these parenthetical asides that build to the longest and most overt: “(There’s never been equality for me,/Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’)” As I wrote in the above hyperlinked piece on Lake’s viral hat, I entirely understand and sympathize with this perspective, and would never pretend that I could speak for Lake, or Hughes, or anyone who might justifiably express this vision of American history and identity; but I do personally find that vision too dismissive of the greatness of figures like Hughes and so many others who have written and spoken and worked and advocated for the best of America.
And while Hughes’s poem begins with and certainly does justice to that critical perspective, it also and to my mind most importantly moves very fully in its second half into a critically patriotic vision of the nation as well. That happens most potently in the second repetition of the title phrase: “O, let America be America again—/The land that never has been yet—/And yet must be—the land where every man is free.” And the poem’s critical patriotism culminates in the penultimate stanza, which repeats but crucially revises the first parenthetical rebuke: “O, yes,/I say it plain,/America never was America to me,/And yet I swear this oath—/America will be!” Hughes’s dense and stirring poems include a great deal more than just the threads I’ve highlighted here, but at its core it is precisely one of the plainest and most powerful expressions of both elements of the concept of critical patriotism. Its last line, “And make America again!,” might seem quite close to Donald Trump’s infamous slogan, but I literally can’t imagine a more crucially contrasting text and vision.
Patriotic series continues tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other patriotic texts you’d highlight?

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