For this Week’s Peace of History:
We share two more poems in celebration of National Poetry Month. This time, our first poem comes from Wendell Berry. “Let Us Pledge” concerns the awful truths of our society, the stories we tell ourselves to stay sane in an insane world, and how paper-thin those defenses can be. The narrator starts sentences with familiar phrases but ends them in extreme, unexpected ways; he gives voice to that which too often goes unsaid, revealing the contradictions between our values and our behaviors. As our governments debate the premature reopening of the economy and other deadly actions to take in this pandemic era, Berry reminds us of how important it is for us to articulate the horrible unspoken consequences and the logical conclusions.
Our second poem is the very famous and popular Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again.” In it, Hughes masterfully contrasts the national story of freedom, opportunity, and equality with the realities of living in the United States for anyone who is not a privileged white man. Hughes lays bare how the national narrative told through text books and federal holidays fools and manipulates us to accept injustice. So many prominent U.S. politicians today rely on vapid rhetoric and puerile pronouncements -- thoughtful policies (or lack thereof), voting histories, and personal indiscretions have not seemed to matter much at all in the past few years. And yet, Hughes reminds us that the purest version of that American Dream belongs to the most oppressed in this nation, for they have experienced it the least. Like Berry, Hughes’ poem is also about narratives and lived experiences, but while Berry’s poem ends with bitterness and perhaps even resignation, Hughes ends his poem defiantly, prophetically: certain of a brighter and more just future led by yesterday’s victims.
“Let Us Pledge”
Let us pledge allegiance to the flag
and to the national sacrifice areas
for which it stands, garbage dumps
and empty holes, sold out for a higher
spire on the rich church, the safety
of voyagers in golf carts, the better mood
of the stock market. Let us feast
today, though tomorrow we starve. Let us
gorge upon the body of the Lord, consuming
the earth for our greater joy in Heaven,
that fair Vacationland. Let us wander forever
in the labyrinths of our self-esteem.
Let us evolve forever toward the higher
consciousness of the machine.
The pool of our engine-driven fate
unwinds, our history now outspeeding
thought, and the heart is a beatable tool.
Wendell Berry (1934-)
“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."
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,
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 (1902-1967)