Editor’s note: This essay was written and originally published in 2007. It is reprinted here with permission.
Some years ago, I came across one of the most intriguing book titles that I have ever seen. It was set forth in the form of a question: Is America Possible? Even without delving into its contents, I was struck by the playful seriousness of the inquiry, the invitation to imagine and explore the shape and meaning of a “possible” America, an America still coming into existence. The idea itself, of course, was not new, simply its formulation.
But since then, everywhere that I have paused to reflect on the powerful, flooding movement of the black struggle for freedom in America, I have been called back to that title, to its query and challenge. For it is a question that has always been at the heart of the African-American quest for democracy in this land. And wherever we have seen these freedom seekers, community organizers, and artisans of democracy, standing their ground, calling others to the struggle, advancing into danger, and creating new realities, it is clear that they are taking the question seriously; shaping their own answers, and testing the possibilities of their dreams.
Is America possible? Yes, they say, sometimes testifying to their vision with great eloquence: “I have a dream that one day…” Sometimes joining their vision to magnificent biblical images, they proclaim, “I’ve been to the mountaintop. I’ve seen the Promised Land.” Or in the marvelously mundane messages of their freedom songs, they express great hope:
“If you don’t see me at the back of the bus / And you can’t find me nowhere / Just come on up to the front of the bus, / and I’ll be riding up there.”
Envisioning very specific expressions of America’s possibilities, they sang, “I’m gonna eat at the Holiday Inn… one of these days.” And the great hope and vision were ultimately caught up in the anthem of the movement, in the stanzas that came from the past, as well as in the ones forged in the heat of the post-World War II struggle:
“We shall overcome… We’ll walk hand in hand… The Lord will see us through… The truth will make us free… Black and white together… Our children will be free… The whole wide world around.”
Somehow, in a time like our own, when the capacity for imagining appears to be endangered, both by the technology of television and the Internet and by the poverty of public dreams, it seems especially crucial to introduce our students to the meaning of such a question as “Is America possible?” And it is absolutely necessary that they discover the significance of the biblical text:
“Where there is no vision the people perish.”
Indeed, it is precisely in a period of great spiritual and societal hunger like our own that we most need to open minds, hearts, and memories to those times when women and men actually dreamed of new possibilities for our nation, for our world, and for their own lives. It is now that we may be able to convey the stunning idea that dreams, imagination, vision, and hope are actually powerful mechanisms in the creation of new realities — especially when the dreams go beyond speeches and songs to become embodied; to take on flesh, in real, hard places.
This is why we turn to the world of dreams and visions that became flesh and blood in the African-American freedom movement. This is why we return to Rosa Parks and wonder aloud what visions of black and white together were in her mind and heart as the bus approached her stop on December 1, 1955. This is why we listen and laugh when her friend and mentor E. D. Nixon tells us that his dream of a new America for his grandchildren had eventually changed to a vision of a new nation that he could see and feel and experience in his own lifetime. It is in search of that power of imagination and action that we approach Malcolm X, realizing that the best heroes of democracy’s shaping were constantly opening their dreams and visions to change and were never satisfied to get high on dreams alone.
Because we need new dreams in each generation, new visions for each time, we ask ourselves and our students about the dreams that moved the fourth-grade-trained Fannie Lou Hamer to challenge an entire political deepening the American dream party and its president and leader, Lyndon B. Johnson. We seek to know more about the visions that kept her working for the poor and the marginalized until she died. Because we believe in the power of the imagination, especially when linked to committed lives — even when the lives and dreams go astray — we look deeply into the eyes of Black Panther founder Huey Newton and understand why a longtime resident of his community, shocked by his murder in 1989, could nevertheless say, “To us, Huey Newton was a hero. The Black Panthers were a thing to identify with, along with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.” What a gathering of dreamers!
If we dare, it may still be possible to encourage such audacious — and necessary — dreaming on behalf of a more just and humane America today. With some encouragement, our teaching may yet find a way to engage the centers of imagination and open visions of a possible America in places where no one ever expected to find them. (As we have seen, we can do this by entering the dreams of those visionary workers who have gone before us, hearing and speaking their words, singing their songs, exploring the hope that moved their lives, and finding the mysterious connections that exist between them and our own deepest centers of creativity.)
Exploring the world of the African-American freedom struggle, we might grasp firmly one seminal statement of vision, one powerful answer to the key question “Is America possible?” and walk with our students into the depths of that experience. Considering Octavio Paz’s description of poetry as “the bridge between history and truth,” it would be exciting to explore a classic poetic statement of the archetypal African-American dream of democracy and see if it can help bring some fundamental truth and hope to the life and times of our students; especially in this decade of awesome transitions. If I were to choose such a vehicle, it would be Langston Hughes’s magnificent poetic summons, “Let America Be America Again.” Such a work could easily occupy us for days or weeks as we touch all its levels, entering all the hope and receiving with gratitude all the visions shared by Hughes well over a half century ago.
To provide a setting, to mix poetry with biography and history, someone (not necessarily the teacher) might explore what America was like in 1935 when the poem was written. What was it like to be black in New York or on lecture tours through the South or on troubled waters somewhere, far from tours and cities and help? In the midst of a profound national depression, how could a black man dream?
Indeed, we are pressed to raise the larger question: What is it that makes for dreams, for visions, for some audacious movement beyond the “is” to the “ought” even in the midst of the most desperate and dangerous situations? But is America possible? Returning to the specific context before us, we can best respond by looking more closely at Hughes himself. We see his Harlem-based, world-traveling life. We grasp the remarkable span and fidelity of his work. And everywhere, we recognize his firm belief in the life-giving purpose of dreams, as well as his sense of responsibility for sharing that belief with those who were younger.
In a thousand ways throughout his work, we hear him say, as he did in “Dreams”:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Against that background, we can approach the larger poem, “Let America Be America Again,” as a way to strengthen our own wings and to speak to our students through song. As we use the poem to encourage an experience of flight in us all, it may be good to go right to the heart of the work. Invariably, I have found students of all ages responding deeply and fully to this poem, opening themselves both to its larger vision and to its implications for their own apparently dreamless lives. Sooner or later, it becomes clear that they have not been encouraged in the nurturing of dreams and visions. Or they have closed themselves against the most personal levels of their being. Even more frequently, they have been taught by word and example that they have no role in the dreaming of America, in the work of storming the impossible. Once they feel permission, once the life-giving power of their own imagination is touched at some vital point, it is amazing how quickly and how well they find their voices and their visions.
Of course, my own experience is not a substitute for each teacher’s own path of discovery. Rather, it is simply offered as a word of encouragement. In the same way, these brief reflections on this poem provide only an idea of what has proved helpful when I have shared Hughes’s call — from maximum security prisons to Sunday school classes. In many ways, the poem is its own commentary and encouragement, its own faithful reflection of the central dreams of so much democratic struggle in this land:
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—
The land where every man is free.
So we begin with a marvelous and stimulating set of ideas and images for our students to explore. What does he mean by these two lines: “The land that never has been yet— / And yet must be—”? Already we are offered a sense of vision, of hope, of dream, of a land that does not yet exist.
On one level, it is a familiar approach to the entire American hemisphere, as conjured up in the minds and hearts of those who have come here, voluntarily or enslaved. But Hughes takes it further than the usual semipassiveness of inner dreams. For he encourages us to recognize that this nation is still in process, still coming into being, still on its way to the fulfillment of its best self. And once that image is suggested, then the natural question flows: What would America’s “best self” be like?
Earlier in the poem, Hughes refers to the essential dream of founders, immigrants, and slaves, of building a “homeland of the free” on these shores. Here he opens up the vision and looks for a land “where every man is free.” (Of course, we stop to wonder if Hughes would use the word man today.) And it is more than academic for us to press on to the question: What does it mean to be free, in America, in the twenty-first century? Constantly tantalizing, nudging, and calling forth, we might inquire, What would this country be like today if we were all free — free to become our best selves (and who might that be) and free to create “a more perfect union” for us all?
Such questions only begin the conversation, suggest directions for the imagination, and invite a variety of sometimes conflicting dreams. Hughes goes on to contribute more concrete images when he writes:
The land that’s mine—
The poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America
His owners of America are a fascinating group, similar to many that we have seen in places like the Poor People’s Campaign and the Rainbow Coalition. Indeed, there is almost an echo here of the classic, prophetic, justice-obsessed strands of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Hughes envisions the land, God’s land, as belonging to the outcasts, the workers, the unexpected. Are these really the ones who made America?
And if that is so, what are the implications of such truth for the future of the nation? How should it be shaped and directed and governed and cared for, if our country really belongs to poor people, Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, and all the laborers “who made America”? What would a country be like that gave its greatest attention, care, and concern to such people? What would a country be like that took its major leadership from owners like these?
Even as we attempt to play with such ideas and visions, it becomes clear that they may not present the greatest challenge to our capacity for seeing the unseen. For it is possible that the most arresting aspect of Hughes’s dream is not a matter of who owns America but his assumption that the primary owners also have the fundamental responsibility for fulfilling the original dream of a “homeland of the free.” Isn’t this the essential message in these words?
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.
At the center of this vision is a dream of a land that does not yet exist and a vision of its creation placed in the hands of very ordinary men and women. What do our students — and their teachers — think of such a vision? In other words, to whom do we think America belongs, and who has the essential responsibility for its future? Are we prepared to abandon the cynically safe responses to these questions, responses like “It belongs to the people with the most money, the best lawyers, and the greatest access to the levers of political power”? Do we know that such supposedly realistic responses eventually stunt and finally destroy all the dream ports of our spirit, break all the wings of our hearts? And that they warn our students against ever dreaming or ever believing that they can fly?
Eventually, Hughes also insists that we confront one of the most daunting realities of all dreams concerning the creation of a more just society; of an America more faithful to the truth of our joint ownership. As we have seen throughout the African-American freedom struggle and in other movements for the expansion of democracy, all visionaries must count the costs. And the next Hughes stanza reminds us of the ever-present opposition that sets itself against dreams of hope and flights of freedom:
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,
Do we know from our own hard experiences or can we recall or imagine some of the names that women and men who nurture such dreams have been called? Communist? Unpatriotic? Crazy? Naïve? Unrealistic? Troublemaker? Agitator? The list is much longer, of course, and if the responses were confined simply to name-calling, they would be easier to take. But as we have seen, in this country and abroad, anyone who vows seriously and publicly to “take back our land” from “those who live like leeches” off the lives of ordinary people is mounting a significant challenge to the status quo.
It would be helpful to have our students reflect on what those words might have meant to Hughes when he wrote them and later on when he was “investigated” by a congressional un-American activities committee. What might they have meant to Martin Luther King, Jr., or what do they mean now to Diane Nash, Bob Moses, Zoharah Simmons, or Jesse Jackson — or to those unknown, endangered, and courageous people who have vowed to fight the scourge of drugs in their local communities?
Whatever the meanings, it is likely that many of those people who have worked for the expansion of democracy and freedom in this land would feel the resonance of Hughes’s powerful affirmations:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
In many ways, the first, accusatory pronouncement has always been easier to make for those who have fought against injustice, segregation, and exploitation. They (we) have seen the great distance between the nation’s magnificent potential and its present reality, and they (we) have announced it loudly: “America never was America to me!” But Hughes and the subsequent history of the movement for freedom and democracy have continually made it clear that while such an initial declaration is surely necessary, it is not sufficient.
Always, everywhere, the second statement, the more difficult commitment, must follow: “America will be!” This is precisely the point at which our students and all of us who sense the inadequacies and injustices of the present and past must be encouraged to cultivate not only indignation and anger but also vision and hope. There is no humane future without them. So Hughes is able to predict the coming of a more just and more democratic America partly because,
An ever-living seed,
Lies deep in the heart of me.
The dream, the seed, and the inner vision of a new nation are crucial. And all of us who are willing to hear the call are challenged to be the bearers, nurturers, and waterers of the seed of the tree of democracy that grows deep within our hearts.
So the question becomes more urgent: What is the America that we dream, that we hope for, that we vow to help bring into being? If Langston Hughes (and there are many Langston Hugheses) is right, then ordinary people, whose lives still carry the struggle and hope of all the early workers and makers of America, bear the central responsibility for the recreation of the nation.
In the 1950s and 1960s, while Hughes was still alive, a generation of African Americans and their white allies took up the challenge, crafted their own versions of the dream, and committed their lives to its fulfillment. Indeed, the work was carried out with such fervor and fullness that one of Hughes’s Harlem-based contemporaries, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., could stand in the midst of that movement and declare,
“We are the last revolutionaries in America — the last transfusion of Freedom into the blood stream of democracy.”
What do our students know of all this, think of all this? What does the name Powell or the Abyssinian Baptist Church mean to them? What shall they do with the idea of an America in process, an America that is not a finished, sharp-edged block of white granite but is instead a malleable, multicolored gift of clay; still seeking, taking, giving shape, purpose, and direction?
Even more important, how shall our students respond to the challenge of Hughes’s dream, Hughes’s hope, and Powell’s audacious declaration? Is this call for dream keepers, reality shapers, and life-giving revolutionaries too old and out of style? Is this a time of permanently broken wings? Are we in a place without healers? “Is there no balm in Gilead?”
Clearly neither Langston Hughes, sainted poet of democracy, nor any of those who made the movement that helped transform the last years of his life, would settle for broken wings or aborted transfusions. Rather, it is fascinating that Hughes, ending his poem in the 1930s, and the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) opening their campaign in the 1950s, used the same religiously charged imperative: to redeem.
In this supposedly more secular age, when too many of us tend to be uncomfortable with the age-old memories of a religious spirit that “can make a way out of no way,” we are still faced with Hughes’s last words, his repeated challenge, his call for something resembling religious fervor to rise up in our ordinary lives:
We, the people, must redeem
Our 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.
Now, in the early years of a new millennium, when the “impossible” has sprung up live among us again and again, it may be possible to rescue such words from mere sentimentality, to let them call us and our students from temptations toward nihilism and indifference.
How? Perhaps we begin simply by listening together to the incantation “We, the people,” allowing its vibrations to inhabit us, asking each other about its original source and its meaning in our current setting. Gathering against our hesitation to dream “a more perfect union,” we may begin to play, to imagine, to dare envision some of what Hughes was (and still is) calling for.
Gathered together, protected in the sacred circle of our common work from our own fears of exposure, we might ask each other what it would mean to redeem or rescue our land, Mother Earth, from its erosion, from our chemical pollutants, our nuclear waste, our garbage, and our greed. How might the land be rescued from its concentration into fewer and fewer hands, ever more distant from the ordinary owners that Hughes identified?
The challenge is powerful; especially when we absorb into our beings the ecological, economic, and political developments that have taken place in America since Hughes died in 1967. For now we must place new meaning on saving our mines, recovering or replacing and remaking our disappeared and dilapidated industrial plants, rescuing our dying rivers and our denuded mountains. Indeed, one of the most important responses to the call of the poem would be the projection of our imaginations into the 21st century, bringing together the older, valiant dreams with all that we have seen and heard and felt since World War II regarding the struggle for democracy in America and across the globe.
Because we have been given years that were not his, it may be that one of the greatest challenges of the poem is to dream beyond its creator: to recapture the best dreams of Ella Baker, Huey Newton, and Harold Washington and to join forces with the dreams of Angela Davis, Jim Lawson, Grace Boggs, and Myrlie Evers. We need these dreams badly. They are marvelous sources of advanced ideas about democracy. They would likely ask us to nurture the living seed within us and imagine how our cities might become safe, enthralling, and nourishing places, especially for our children. They would ask us to look somewhere between the isolation of the suburbs and the desolation of so many inner cities to dream a way of housing our people in places worthy of human dignity and community. They would encourage visions of a health system that would care for the needs of all our citizens. They would invite us to dream of schools and neighborhoods where children of all races, cultures, and economic groups are taught together to become responsible, compassionate citizens in an ever-expanding democratic society.
Taking up Hughes’s unmentioned concerns, those living beyond him in a struggle for a new America might ask us to envision a nation free from the scourge of drugs, in both our personal and collective lives. They might nurture dreams of a society in which training for nonviolent peacemaking took priority over military “preparedness.” They might call us to a time when our relationships with other nations would be more neighborly, more mutually supportive in the great multinational healing tasks we have to accomplish. Remembering King, we know these rainbow warriors would urge us to dream a world in which our country will work with others to seek economic justice for all the basic-goods producer nations who are now broken and exploited, a world where the United States takes the path of peace with all who are now threatened by our immature and unwise search for military-based “security.”
Continuously, persistently, I hear all the heroic voices of struggle joining Hughes in a common message. It says loudly that the work of discovering, exploring, and developing this true America is our work — we, the people, are in charge. Is it too much to ask our students to consider their role in this life-seeking action, both as dreamers and as workers? Are there noncoercive ways in which we may invite them to live beyond their presently defined self-limits, to participate in the re-creating tasks that await; beginning with themselves and stretching out to all “the endless plains” and the wounded cities of our land? To dream such dreams, to grasp such visions, to live lives anchored in great hope is certainly to develop ourselves and our students in the best traditions of the freedom movement, of all movements for justice, compassion, and democracy. Eventually, we might discover that it is also the path to our best personal humanity.
Once, in the midst of the African independence struggles of the early 1960s, I remember hearing a poet of that continent say, “I am a citizen of a country that does not yet exist.” Perhaps this is the paradox into which we must allow Hughes to move us. Together with those we teach, we are officially citizens of the America we now know, but we need to give our greatest energies to the creation of the country that does not yet exist. Hughes calls us to envision it, to encourage our students to use all the magnificent but underdeveloped faculties of their imagination to begin to bring it into being, and to share that work with those who have gone before. Ultimately, Langston Hughes spoke both for our personal lives and for our nation when he wrote:
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
It is a message for all of us who are committed to teach. We are the nurturers, the encouragers of all the dreams and seeds deep in all the hearts where the future of a redeemed and rescued land now dwells. So we must hold fast and see beneath the snow, calling others to recognize their own magnificent possibilities, to see and plant and join our hope with theirs. Today, we are called to sing in our dreams and say with our actions that America (the America of Langston and Malcolm and Ella and Anne Braden and all the marchers and mourners and organizers) is possible, is necessary, is coming.