America is popularly known as a country which offers freedom towards its people. Freedom here can mean freedom to speak, freedom to do anything to get success, freedom to do anything people like. It is symbolized with the statue of Miss Liberty in New York. Therefore, America becomes a dream for people who feel constrained in their life in their native country. It makes them migrate to the United States. This paper talks about America as a dream that in fact has not come true yet, especially for African American people which use to be more popularly called Black people.
Authors write to express and perpetuate their intellectual and emotional experiences, their observations and conclusions. They write to relate to others the process of their thoughts, the creation of their imaginings. In expressing their experiences and intellectual processes, authors also want to interpret the meaning contained in them. They search for the meaning of life in the realities of their experiences, in the realities of their dreams, hopes, and memories (Chapman, 1972: 394)
That is exactly what Langston Hughes does through his works—poems, short stories, songs, novels, plays, and autobiographies. In one of his autobiographies entitled THE BIG SEA, Hughes said that he wrote his best poems when he felt worst. When he was happy, he did not write anything (Hughes, 1958:351). He expresses his experiences and intellectual processes in his writings “To explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America” (http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap9/hughes.html accessed on February 21, 2003). The one of his most often reprinted poems in anthologies—“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”—was written on the train during his trip to Mexico just outside St. Louis, as the train left for Texas. When the train crossed the Mississippi, slowly, over a log bridge, he looked out the window at the great muddy river flowing down toward the heart of the South. Hughes began to think what that old Mississippi river had meant to Negroes in the past—how to be sold down the river was the worst fate that could overtake a slave in times of bondage. It made him feel very bad, and it gave him an idea to write a poem (Hughes, 1958:351-352). Written when Hughes felt very bad, the poem became one of his best poems.
As mentioned above that Hughes writes to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America, his works are replete with the condition in America at that time with its Jim Crow Law. Hughes was born on February 1, 1902 and died on May 22, 1967 so that he experienced the bitterness and unfairness of that law. In one of his speeches entitled “My America”, Hughes said that his ancestry went back at least four generations on American soil (Hughes, 1958:500). His background and training was purely American—the schools of Kansas, Ohio, and the East. He was “old stock” as opposed to those who just migrated to America by the end of nineteenth century and the early of twentieth century. However, those newcomers enjoyed more facilities—e.g. accommodations when traveling about the country, better job opportunities, and education—than the native-born but colored Americans. It is only a matter of the color of their complexion.
Three poems are chosen to be discussed in this paper. They are “Freedom’s Plow”, “Let America be America Again”, and “Will V-Day Be Me-Day Too?” The title of this paper is AMERICA – A DREAM THAT HAS NOT COME TRUE YET. The first poem—taken from THE LANGSTON HUGHES READER—describes that America itself is a dream. The last two poems—taken from THE COLLECTED POEMS OF LANGSTON HUGES—describe how the dream is only a dream; it has never come to the reality for centuries.
AMERICA AS A DREAM
When talking about American Dream, one can come to many kinds of interpretation. In her article entitled “Facing Up to the American Dream: Race, Class, and the Soul of the Nation” (1995), Hochschild says that the American Dream consists of tenets about achieving success. People most often define success as the achievement of high income, a prestigious job, and economic security. When doing survey about what Americans dream and what immigrants dream when migrating to the United States, Hochschild finds out that they want to have a good chance of improving their standard of living (http://www.pup.princeton.edu/chapter5/s5712.html). In other words, they want to have a better life.
In his poem entitled “Freedom’s Plow”, Hughes describes that America is built by people who come from various classes of society.
A long time ago, but not too long ago,
Ships came across the sea
Bringing Pilgrims and prayer-makers,
Adventurers and booty seekers,
Free men and indentured servants,
Slave men and slave masters, all new—
To a new world, America!
Different classes of society are they from, but they share the same dream, freedom.
Guarding in their hearts the seed of freedom
But the word was there always
In line 142, Hughes writes America is a dream. America itself is a dream, a country that Crevecoeur describes in his “Lettrs from an American Farmer” that “ it is not composed of great lords who possess everything and of a herd of people who have nothing … The rich and the poor are not so far removed from each other … because they are equitable … Here man is free as he ought to be” (Baym, 1989: 559). Therefore, America is a dream place for persecuted and poor people who escape from their native country.
America is a dream to which the early immigrants move—a dream to get what they do not have in the country where they are born. Each of them has their own dreams too.
With billowing sails the galleons came
Bringing men and reams, women and dreams
Lines 35-36 above show when they move to their dream place, they also have their own dreams. The early immigrants have a dream to get freedom of choosing religion and getting rid of poverty. The immigrants at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century have a dream to achieve success—meaning high income, prestigious jobs, economic security.
In stanza eight, lines 91-95, Hughes quoted Jefferson’s
His name was Jefferson. There were slaves then,
But in their hearts the slaves believed him, too
And silently took for granted
That what he said was also meant for them.
Those lines show that America is still a dream place for the black people although they have been enslaved for more than a century. For black people, those amazing words give them a dream that they will be equal with their fellow white citizens.
AMERICA AS A DREAM IS A FAILURE
In the same aforementioned article, Hochschild writes that success can also be connoted as “a right to say what they wanta say, do what they wanta do, and fashion a world into something that can be great for everyone”. In another part of that article, quoting Bruce Springsteen, Hochschild writes, “I don’t think the American Dream was that everybody was going to have an opportunity and the chance to live a life with some decency and some dignity and a chance for some self-respect (http://www.pup.princeton.edu/chapter5/s5712.html)
However, the existence of Jim Crow Law made black Americans not be able to have rights to say, do what they want to do, and have an opportunity and the chance to live a life with decency and dignity and a chance for self-respect. In one of his well-known speeches—entitled “I Have a Dream”—delivered on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. expresses his dream “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed; we hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal” (http://www.toptags.com/aama/voices/speeches_speech1.htm). He dreams that one day black and white children will go playing and eating together at the same table. He dreams that one day black and white people will go studying at the same school. He dreams that one day he sees his children grow up and be respected by other people based on their dignity, and not despised because of the color of their skin.
Again, in his sermon delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia on July 4, 1965, Dr. King again referred to what is stated in the Declaration of Independence “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by God, Creator, with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” (Baym, 1989: 640) as a great dream which is very universal, everywhere in the world people have rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Although during those two years (1963-1965) he sees that his dreams are shattered, Dr. King still encourages his congregation to have that dream, expecting that is will come true one day. (http://www.standord.edu/group/King/sermons/650704 TheAmericanDream.html)
In the poem “Let America Be America Again” (1938), Hughes expresses how the dream—that human beings are created equal—fails to come true. It speaks of the freedom and equality that America boasts, but it never comes true yet.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free”)
What Crevecoeur says in “Letters from an American Farmer”, and the founding fathers write in the Declaration of Independence do not come true yet. In this poem, though, Hughes plead fulfillment of the dream not only for the downtrodden Negro, he also includes other minority groups, such as the poor white and the Indian—people that share the same dream that has not come true yet.
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 dogs eat dogs, of mighty crush the weak
Not only do the Black suffer from inequality, other minority groups feel the same way too. The poor white who do not get what they dream to get when migrating to America, the Negro who have black history during slavery time, and the native who are driven away on their own land—all of them feel that what is stated in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal stays a dream only, that never comes true.
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
In the above lines, Hughes again emphasizes that America is just a dream, because America never becomes what he thinks it should be. Yet, in the following lines, from the same stanza Hughes writes
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Those two lines describes Hughes’ firm willing that one day America will be like that people dream it should be. The use of the exclamation mark shows Hughes’ optimism that the dream will come true—America will be a place where everybody is equal, everybody has a chance to live a life with decency and dignity and a chance for self-respect.
The last poem “Will V-Day Be Me-Day, Too?” is written during the World War II. When the U.S. plunged into the World War II, Hughes escaped military service but he put his pen to work on behalf of political involvement and nationalism (http://www.galegroup.com/free-resources/bhm/bio/hughes1.htm).
Different from the second poem where he represented all the minority groups in the United States, in the last poem, Hughes represented his own race. Black Americans also went to war to defend their country just like white Americans did. He encouraged his fellow black citizens to support the United States in its goals abroad, and at the same time he also encouraged the government to provide its own citizens at home the same freedom being advocated abroad (http://www.galegroup.com/free-resources/bhm/bio/ hughes1.htm).
In the second poem, Hughes shows optimism that America will be America to him someday. On the contrary, in the third poem, Hughes questions it whether after the war is over and America wins, the Black will have a better life.
So, this is what I want to know
When we see Victory’s glow,
Will you still let old Jim Crow
Hold me back?
When all those foreign folks who’ve waited—
Italians, Chinese, Danes—are liberated
Will I still be ill-fated
Because I’m black?
In this poem, Hughes does not represent other minority groups anymore, because the others can get the equality easily—even the Chinese who were rejected to enter the United States by the end of the nineteenth century can be liberated more quickly than the Black.
Black Americans join the World War II to show their loyalty to the government, to the land where they are born and raised. Behind this action, there must be a political reason. By seeing their loyalty toward the country and the bravery to fight the enemy, the government is expected that they will change their policy, to make their dream come true—the Black are equal to the White.
While in the second poem, one can feel the optimistic tone—especially in the lines 79-80, in the third poem Hughes keep questioning:
When this war comes to an end,
Will you herd me in a Jim Crow car
Or will you stand up like a man
At home and take your stand
That’s all I ask of you.
When we lay the guns away
Our Victory Day
WILL V-DAY BE ME-DAY TOO?
That’s what I want to know.
Instead of using exclamation mark like in the second poem, in the third poem, Hughes uses question mark showing he is not sure whether the Black will be equal with the White. Reading Dr. King’s sermon given in 1965, two decades later after the World War II ends, one can conclude that after the World War II is over, the Black still suffer from inequality. The dream does not come true yet.
Langston Hughes—a Negro author—writes to explain and illuminates the Negro condition in America. In his three poems discussed here, one can see the condition in the United States. The first poem—“Freedom’s Plow—shows that America is a dream. It is a dream place where people migrate to achieve dreams they have in their own mind. The second poem—“Let America Be America Again”—shows that America as a dream land is really only a dream for some minority groups that never comes true. The third poem—“Will V-Day Be Me-Day, Too?”—is still questioning whether the dream will be reality for all people living in the United States regardless the color of their skin.
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