The Friday Poem ‘Theme for English B’ by Langston Hughes

The headlines of the past week included coverage of the school teachers’ strikes in Oklahoma and Kentucky, and the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Often these events seem remote, not touching our daily lives. But they do.

The Friday Poem this week is ‘Theme for English B’ by author and poet Langston Hughes.

At the time Dr. King emerged onto the national stage, Langston Hughes was more well known. Until 1960 the poet and civil rights activist maintained a close friendship, ending when rumors of Hughes being a communist sympathizer appeared to threaten the future of the civil rights movement.

Theme for English B

The instructor said,

     Go home and write
     a page tonight.
     And let that page come out of you—
     Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you.
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?

Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.

Langston Hughes   ‘Collected Poems’   1994

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Image: Pastel Portrait Winold Reiss, National Portrait Gallery

 

‘Let American Be America Again’ a poem by Langston Hughes

We spend a lot of time considering the values of our workplace and how they mesh with our priorities; who we will become as part of a workplace community. But where we go to work is located in the broader context of a national set of values. And those values have been the topic of conversation this political season, with some questioning the basic tenets that have, until now, defined our national conscience.

It sometimes seems like we have lost our collective sense of the core values that bind us as humans, Americans and global citizens.

Take a moment today to restore our ‘moral memory’ and revisit history through the lens of American poet, Langston Hughes. The Friday Poem this week is ‘Let America Be America Again’ written in 1935 and published in Esquire Magazine in 1936.

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!

Langston Hughes  ‘The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes’  1995

Dreams – A Poem by Langston Hughes

Today’s poem comes from one of the leading literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes. As a writer his work included short stories, translations, children’s books and anthologies. But he was best known for his poems. His writing reflected the idea that black culture should be celebrated, because it is just as valuable as white culture, a historical sentiment relevant to today’s refrain of ‘black lives matter’.

‘Dreams’ was written in the early years of the civil rights movement. The words hold the promise of hope and signal the consequences ‘when dreams go’. The poem gives us encouragement to break through whatever roadblocks we encounter on the way to fulfilling our life goals.

Dreams

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.