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.)
Langston Hughes, Let America Be America Again
The realities of American history trouble those willing to remove the blinders. We are a nation still divided by the artificial definitions we created to separate and segregate us from each other or to hold others in subjugation.
Black, white, brown, gay, straight, cis-gendered, non-binary, LGBTQ, all unnatural epithets that serve no purpose but the continuation of learned bigotry.
When Isabel Wilkerson, the author of Caste, gave a talk in London, a Nigerian-born playwright spoke to her after the lecture. Her words define the very essence of the problem in America.
“You know that there are no black people in Africa,” she said.Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste (p. 77). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Wilkerson further described the encounter.
Most Americans, weaned on the myth of drawable lines between human beings, have to sit with that statement. It sounds nonsensical to our ears. Of course there are black people in Africa. There is a whole continent of black people in Africa. How could anyone not see that? “Africans are not black,” she (the Nigerian-born playwright) said. “They are Igbo and Yoruba, Ewe, Akan, Ndebele. They are not black. They are just themselves. They are humans on the land. That is how they see themselves, and that is who they are.Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste (p. 77). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition
“They don’t become black until they go to America or come to the U.K.,” she said. “It is then that they become black.”
“This is how they see themselves…” Think about that for a moment. Their self-awareness arises from their ancestry, place of birth, language, culture, and history, not the color of their skin. Their being defined as “black” doesn’t even exist until they arrive in America. Their “blackness” was never an element of their being, just an untenable method of differentiation.
A fallacy which we still cling to today.
Undertaking the effort of understanding these self-defined and false appellations implies the obligation to accept people for what they are, not what our learned prejudices or ignorance tell us we must fear or have dominion over.
And while the U.K. and other Western nations eventually outlawed slavery, the U.S. clung to it—and the attendant dependency on considering the “black” race of humans to be inferior—to the point of annihilating 450,000 fellow Americans and wounding millions in a failed attempt to preserve the unholy institution.
An action which some try to gloss over by twisting historical reality. The Confederate Flag may be a part of history, but it should no more be celebrated or displayed than the Nazi flag that once hung over Auschwitz, Sobibor, or Dacau.
This persistence of discrimination, bigotry, and inequities continues to drag us down. Until we learn to accept all humans for what they see themselves—as fellow humans of equal stature —the goal of Making America Great Again, of eliminating the America of Langston’s Letting America Be America Again, or of becoming that Bright Shining City on the Hill will remain elusive.
It would seem with almost every aspect of our lives, every form will fill in, somehow requires us to select our “race.” This is not only a self-sustaining segregation of people but is based on a false premise. The color of one’s skin—merely the level of melatonin—is a genetically determined characteristic. It is no more determinative of ability or intelligence than is the color of one’s eyes or height.
Yet we insist on using this to differentiate one person from the other. It is artificial and arbitrary. Merely serving to reinforce and preserve stereotypes.
“We think we ‘see’ race when we encounter certain physical differences among people such as skin color, eye shape, and hair texture, What we actually ‘see’…are the learned social meanings, the stereotypes, that have been linked to those physical features by the ideology of race and the historical legacy it has left us.”” —Smedley, Audrey, and Brian D. Smedley. Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2012.
And as historian Nell Irvin Painter wrote.
“Americans cling to race as the unschooled cling to superstition.”Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), p. xi.
Humans are not born with innate prejudice; it is a learned behavior taught by those around them. Children see differences as intriguing and exciting. Those within their circle of influence teach them to fear, resent, despise, or believe themselves superior to these differences.
Discrimination is a by-product of ignorance, poor social upbringing, and fundamentally flawed education. And the result is a self-fulfilling prophecy of mistrust, anger, resentment, and revulsion of others based on a fallacy.
That many people in this country cling to the false premise that America was once greater than it is today is a troubling sign of a persistent ignorance of history. Until we are willing to openly accept that greatness eludes us because we choose to ignore our flaws, nothing will change.
When a Governor can classify murder victims by their immigration status—incorrectly—and people in the country do not universally condemn this, something is drastically wrong in America. While many spoke out against this idiocy, the fact that many, if not most, remained silent speaks volumes.
Langston Hughes, whose lines from Let America Be America Again opened this piece, defines the inherent differences between those who have lived the American dream and those who still suffer under an American nightmare.
This inherent “racial” prejudice is a uniquely American phenomenon. While discrimination permeates history, only in America has it become institutionalized. By any measure, the differences in education, economic opportunity, housing, and health among Americans of different backgrounds—particularly those we have identified as different than our perception of the majority —are startling.
One can see the inherent inequities using the census bureau data or a host of other sources. I invite you to look for yourselves.
This difficulty in understanding also serves to divide us. Those who never had anything to do with slavery—who would argue they have always found the practice abhorrent—cannot understand why they bear any responsibility for it. Those whose families suffered under the system, continued to suffer after abolition, and still bear the brunt of discrimination, both overt and unconscious bias, cannot comprehend how anyone can fail to see the connection.
This disparity of perception is preventing our moving forward.
Hughes says it best,
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.")
We have no hope of achieving greatness until the inequities faced by those like Langston Hughes are obliterated from our lives. The greatness of a country is not based on the perceptions of others but on the realities of the lives of all its citizens. When America offers equality to all by eliminating inequities based on fallacies, then and only then can we claim greatness.
For those of you who may have never read Langston Hughes poem, I have included it here at the end. His is a voice worth hearing.
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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, M.E.— 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!