The Idea of America
When I consider what I think of Independence Day, I cannot help but call to mind Langston Hughes' great poem- my favorite poem- Let America Be America Again. It speaks so powerfully and perfectly to the struggle that has always raged within the United States, a struggle that perhaps we feel more acutely today, but that has been with us since the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.
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.)
What makes the United States 'special'? What justification could there be for the millions who claim it as the greatest nation on Earth? It surely is no more prosperous, and no more a citadel of liberty, than any of the nations of Europe, or than some of the other nations of the New World, or than some of the nations of Asia. It is quite clear that we are less free and less prosperous than many of them. What makes America distinct? Why is it worth fighting for? Why should it not be given up for lost?
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.)
We can distill these questions down to the most basic: why was the United States created? What was the reason for its coming into being? That would be a difficult question for many nations, whose origins are lost in the migration of tribes and the mists of time. Yet it is an easy question for Americans to answer. The reason for our nation's being, the justification for the existence of the United States, comes in two documents: the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.
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.")
The Declaration advances the idea that all people are created equal, and that they have natural rights- rights not given to them by their rulers, but rights that they have innately, as a result of simply existing. It further states that any government which does not enshrine and protect these rights is an unjust government, and that such an unjust government should not be obeyed. The Constitution creates the kind of government that should realize the ideas of the Declaration: a government controlled by the will of the people, a government whose powers are limited by the rule of law. It is a government of reason designed to safeguard sacred ideals, of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
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!
Yet if this is true we are presented with a profound dilemma, for the United States has never lived up to the ideals professed in the Declaration and enshrined in the Constitution. Not once in the history of the United States of America have all men and women under its flag been free, been prosperous, been the real power behind their government. There has always been some group, large or small, excluded, and the few, the mighty, the rich have always lorded over the common folk.
Does this mean the Idea of the United States is false? No. It means something else, an even more radical conclusion: the United States has never existed. The country that calls itself the United States of America, the country that stretches from sea to shining sea, has only ever been the echo and the shadow of the real United States, the full and true United States. There have been times when the shadow has come closer to the truth, and there have been times- times such as ours- when it has drifted further away, but never has the country that called itself the United States, that called itself America, actually been America, because never has it aligned completely with the Idea of America. It has always failed its promise, ruined the dreams of its Founders and its fighters and its workers and its poets.
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.
And yet, as Hughes' shaded and ghostly narrator says,
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.
America has never existed. But it must exist- rather, its existence must be our constant project. Even if we fail, even if the United States as it truly lives in the dreams and hopes of the many can never truly be, the struggle is good and true, and the country built from it, while perhaps never fully the United States, can come to be like the United States, and in doing so, can spread its liberty and its prosperity to millions who dream of a better, freer life, not just within the borders of the country that calls itself the United States but across the world.
There are flashes, whispers, bursts throughout the history of the American continent when the United States has come, however briefly, into being. It existed when the landless common man gained full voting rights. It existed when the slaves everywhere were freed with the stroke of a pen. It existed when the beaten and struggling masses joined together as an organized labor force. It existed when women at last achieved equality with men in the voting booth. It existed when the government reached out its hands to lift up its people in the agony of Depression. It existed when the black, the female, the young, the indigenous, and the poor entered the streets to demand better from their country. And it exists now in the stirrings of resistance and independence among the plain people who refuse to surrender any more of their livelihood to the demands of the vile and the greedy, the modern kings and aristocrats who have ever hated the Idea of America.
The United States, the country so named, is in truth a broken and pitiable place. But the United States that lives in the dreams of its people, of people all over the world- the Idea of America- is worth every last drop of blood and sweat and tears that must be shed. So on this day that celebrates the birth of that Idea, I commit myself more firmly than ever to seeing it realized in the breathing world that still so desperately needs it. I hope not to be alone.
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!