The Dream the Dreamers Dreamed
We require many role models in this work of poetry, in this work of bringing poetry into the public square, where it might challenge, comfort, disturb, imagine; where it might make a better America.
As a role model, I choose Langston Hughes, father figure, inspiration, muse.
Why do I, a straight white woman, choose Langston Hughes, a queer Black man, as literary father? Because Hughes chose me, a dreamer. Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed, he wrote in that great manifesto, “Let America Be America Again.” He chose us, those who believe America can be America again (which never was to so many). He chose the poets, the activists, the believers.
Have you read the whole poem recently? I hadn’t. When I did, I was knocked out by Hughes’ ability to contain it all, the dream of that great strong land of love/Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme/That any man be crushed by one above,” the promise of our founding documents, flawed as they are, and the country’s failure, time and time again, to live up to that promise:
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.
For a Black man in the early part of the 20th century, living in a society that nurtured the most virulent of racisms, to be so hopeful, to swear this oath — America will be! What could be more powerful?
The power resides, in part, in the fact that the poet is unafraid of contradiction. For isn’t America contradiction? He is unafraid, period: Sure, call me any ugly name you choose/The steel of freedom does not stain.
And the poem gathers all into its vision (in the language of the day): the poor white, the Negro, the red man, the immigrant. In creating Split This Rock, the national organization of socially engaged poets, I take the poem as model. I dream of a place to bridge our divides, a welcome, a home for all. We are dreamers, all. We can wrestle with the difficulties. We can challenge one another and survive. We can live with complexity — the dream and the reality, both.
The poem is a call to arms — Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death… We, the people, must redeem/The land… And make America again! When we face hate in Arizona and corporate ruination of our land and water in the Gulf and everywhere; when we face poverty and violence on the streets of Washington, DC, we need Langston Hughes’s determination, his vision. Now I carry this poem as my beacon, sometimes as my shield. Let us be that great strong land of love, even as we build it. Let us honor our papa Langston Hughes.
Sarah Browning is a poet residing in the District of Columbia and the author of Whiskey in the Garden of Eden. Ms. Browning is the director and co-founder of Split This Rock: a literary/social action organization that borrows its name from a line one of Langston Hughes’ poems.