Hughes' Let American Be America Again: Analysis & Meaning

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  • 0:04 Inequality in America
  • 0:50 Let America Be America Again
  • 2:42 Meaning
  • 4:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

What does it mean to let America be America again? Poet Langston Hughes had a few thoughts about that. In this lesson, we'll explore his poem, 'Let America Be America Again', and the meaning behind his words.

Inequality in America

In the early 1960s, Woolworth's was still maintaining its ''whites only'' lunch counters, refusing to serve black patrons in the same space occupied by white patrons. The company's stance launched a demonstration known as a sit-in, where students from area universities sat down at the lunch counter and refused to leave. The sit-ins were a way to shine a spotlight on the unequal treatment of customers based on the color of their skin.

The Langston Hughes poem might have been an inspiration to individuals who participated in the sit-ins in the 1960s.
sit in, lunch counter, woolworth, langston hughes, america, inequality, racism

Twenty-five years before these sit-ins, American poet Langston Hughes wrote a poem titled ''Let America Be America Again'' that expressed his concerns over racism and inequality. Hughes' poem acts as a voice for anyone who has suffered an injustice or been treated unfairly in some way. Let's take a closer look.

''Let America Be America Again''

Hughes' poem immediately opens with the notion that America is not the dream it used to be. Essentially, Hughes is saying, ''let America be America again,'' because it's not the America it claims to be. The fifth line, ''America was never America,'' is a powerful statement about Hughes' feelings, and possibly those of many others, that the values on which America was founded (freedom, liberty, and justice for all) do not really exist.

The poet speaks of America as he believes it should be, a place ''where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme;'' a place where the ideals of patriotism are not just words, but truths for everyone who lives here. Hughes alludes to the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of freedom but pines for a country where freedom is not just a symbol but an actuality.

Throughout the poem, Hughes uses repetitive phrasing such as, ''America never was America to me,'' to demonstrate how America has failed him.

Hughes speaks to all types of people in his poem, addressing immigrants, Native Americans, the poor, and the blacks. He personalizes the plights of the farmers, the workers, and the men and women who came to America with hopes of something greater by using the phrase, ''I am,'' over and over.

The poem questions who ''the free'' really are. Hughes says the free don't represent the people who have nothing for the money they've earned, whose American dream is nearly dead. As the writer, Hughes represents every man, woman, worker, and race whose ''sweat and blood, faith and pain,'' have helped to build America and must continue to do so. In this instance, he shows hope for what America can become, again stressing that, while America's ideals have never covered him, America can still be great.

The last lines of the poem put the burden on the American people to redeem and enforce the qualities America has been known for all across the world.

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