The American identity is one fraught with conflict. As children we are taught America was settled by friendly looking pilgrims who sought shelter from religious persecution. Thanksgiving is the holiday we celebrate to commemorate the Native Americans and pilgrims getting their grub on because they were happy they did not die. Then we enter college and learn it was all a lie, a lie of omission and sugarcoated ambiguities. People fleeing religious persecution of their own design came to an already inhabited land and proceeded to persecute others just as they had been persecuted.
At this point I sound ashamed to be American but it is exactly the opposite. To be American owns up to the fact that we have a sordid bloody history of conquest and erasure that bleeds into the present and permeates every aspect of society but it is also a celebration of diversity. Olympians of every color, shape and creed, the impending revolution that will take place if the Great Orange One is elected, the ability to critique our government without killings although that rings hollow given the police brutality that has always existed but in recent years has garnered more media attention and hope. Hope that there will be something netter for oneself, friends, family or even strangers. Our religions are persecuted on a regular basis but the American people call out the nonsense and put a spotlight on it.
Benjamin Franklin wrote “In America, the rapid increase of inhabitants takes away that fear of rivalship, and artisans willingly receive apprentices from the hope of profit by their labor, during the remainder of the time stipulated, after they shall be instructed” (475) in response to the idea of Europe being a feudal nightmare that stifled character growth as well as growth of one’s funds. At its bedrock the American Dream is hard work will bring success and while this is true, it is not a level playing field. Hard work does not ensure success in modern America because you are not always compensated for it. Compensation doesn’t necessarily have to be money but a worthwhile experience. Working as a cleric gives you the skills to multitask, write up paperwork and better manage people in the customer service field but would compensation is there in $9 an hour to be dehumanized by customers? “Get used to it”, “it is what it is”, “stop complaining” or “get over it” will no longer be sufficient answers if one of our founding fathers wrote about stipulation. As Americans we need to hold ourselves to a better standard, not one of exceptionalism within our borders as an excuse for bad behavior.
Let America Be America Again
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! (From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1994 the Estate of Langston Hughes. Used with permission.)