John Kerry has been in search of a line or two of American poetry to suggest the challenge ahead, most especially his role in it. There has been much effort on the matter by his staff, and they finally came up with what they were looking for. According to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, “an expert on political messages” quoted by the New York Times, the line the Kerry campaign was searching for had to have resonance with Americans who believe the country is being taken in the wrong direction. As Ms. Jamieson analyzes the line, “It suggests someone’s hijacked the country, without being a frontal attack.”
The line was first tried out by Kerry in Topeka, Kan., on the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, and it seemed to glimmer on the candidate’s lips, auguring a robust future. So Mr. Kerry used it again a few days later, and now it is being given very serious attention. The line is, “Let America be America again.”
That phrase has something going for it. It was written by an American Negro poet, Langston Hughes (1902-1967). It is thought, in Kerryland, to be at once celebratory, poignant and galvanizing. “America” is cited, implicitly the paradise to which one should aspire, a great land that lies there waiting for us deep in coils of a lapsed American idealism, waiting to be revived by an inspired new champion.
But research on the phrase is not enjoined for the community that will sing it forth. The reason for that is that Langston Hughes wrote the poem “Let America Be America Again” in 1938, and it is not easy to summon to mind which America he was calling on his countrymen to restore, to be America again. There was little about America for the American Negro to celebrate in 1938 — unless you are willing to accept the proposition of George Washington Carver. Mr. Carver, scientist and philosopher, the son of a slave, said that American blacks had this to celebrate: that they had been plucked from African forests, brought to America, and baptized into the liberating faith of Christianity, which was the springboard for their emancipation. But Mr. Carver is not widely hailed by black Democratic progressives, the judgment on him being that he was too submissive to a culture that still practiced Jim Crow.
Langston Hughes, if he is in fact to emerge as the poet of the Democratic Party, will have to be bowdlerized. “Let America be America again” is a line from one poem Mr. Hughes wrote, and its vagueness is useful. But Hughes was not vague. And as for George Washington Carver’s celebration of Christianity, Langston Hughes was, well, skeptical, as in the poem “Goodbye Christ” (1932):
You did alright in your day, I reckon –
But that day’s gone now.
They ghosted you up a swell story, too,
Called it Bible –
But it’s dead now.
That exegesis of Langston Hughes would puzzle Democratic delegates in Boston in July, vibrant with life and mission. And it wasn’t just that Langston Hughes had had a one-night stand with skepticism, along the way to capturing the need to let America be America again. No, Mr. Hughes had a very specific view about history, and his view was clear on the question of which historical road America should travel:
Christ Jesus Lord God Jehovah,
Beat it on away from here now.
Make way for a new guy with no religion at all –
A real guy named
Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME.
Langston Hughes was asking America to “be America again,” meaning, not an America that history had known and chronicled, but an America realizable in a new and different vision. The land of Marx and Lenin and Stalin. Mr. Kerry’s campaign team is going to have serious homework to do before introducing Langston Hughes as the poet laureate of the Democratic Party in 2004.