America, the Beautiful?

I had originally written this back in September of 2016, after many months of heaviness, tears, and prayer. It was also an election year (how could we forget?) and things were crazy then, but not as crazy as now. I’ve changed a few things for the sake of coherency, and added a couple new thoughts, as well as Langston Hughes’ poem. Growing up, he was one of my favorite poets whose raw, hopeful, pained and striking words nurtured my own fragile voice. Today they are still as powerful and nurturing to me, and more so. This post comes with the hope that this nation repents and recovers from her narcissism, and that we, with true true humility and acceptance, realize the power and role that we have in helping America grow into maturity without ourselves resorting to narcissistic tyranny.

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.”

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,
America!

O, yes,
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

We fell in love with your curvaceous hills, orange pink purple skies, luscious fertile valleys, and all the golden promises of milk and honey and overflowing rivers of provision.

Beautiful America, we were seduced by your landscapes that offered us better dreams.

You are one of the first wombs of my parents’ love; under your gaze they birthed three lives, one which was stolen too soon, two which grew into headstrong trees–two hybrid daughters with tiger-striped souls of red, white, and bruised.

I am one of those daughters, birthed in the aftermath of blood-spilled divisions and immigrant dreams of peace in the promised land; I belong in the forbidden ocean space between two nations, two identifications, two dreams.

But Beautiful America, my innocent heart loved you like a child would love the mother who shuns her, ignores her, shushes her, tells her to be silent, to behave; hides her when better company is over, praises her only for the benefits her cleverness can bring, but kicks her when she asks for affection. I loved you like a bastard child loves his father and aches for his father’s approval, his father’s attention.

But, Beautiful America–a childhood filled with such cold rejection and hot manipulation can only turn a heart, and so my adolescence fought loving you; years of starvation for your affection turned to bitter waters and jaded ire.

I cursed you as a traitorous lover; I wanted to disown you, to destroy you, emancipate myself from the illusion of your promises and purple mountain glory; you who continued to flaunt your power and cruel beauty–I hated and desired your brazen confidence, your arrogant freedom that you said could be for everyone, everyone, everyone–but I had already learned to doubt your honeyed words, heard the lament-songs of my brothers and sisters of all the colors black and sepia keys and swore I would never again be seduced by your empty promises.

Beautiful America. My bitter heart vowed to never again be Echo to your Narcissus, no, no. No. I would not love you.

But then. I see your devastated streets littered with bullets, blood, broken families and broken bones and broken dreams, your dark vows collecting their payment in the blood and sweat and tears of the innocent.

I see your continued cruelty to your children, the children of your youth and adolescence whom you raised on stolen lands in chains, cotton rows, railroad tracks, and labor camps…do our tears and awakened cries shame you? Embarrass you? Is it too hard to look into our tired eyes? To ask for forgiveness? To say you were wrong to enslave us, shun us, abuse us, use us to grow strong and then imprison and silence us, fear and burn our midnight beauty, our rich wit, our faithful sun-drenched sweat, and tiger-striped souls that could only make you more beautiful, is it too hard to abandon your pain and pride, finally, and look yourself in an untampered mirror? Is it impossible for you to finally break free from your own chains?

Beautiful America. Why, when I should be angry and spurn the lover who spurned me first, why, when I should be gloating at your demise saying eye for an eye and tooth for tooth, be ruined cruel lover I’m done with you; why, instead of these petty but justifiable sentiments, why, instead, do I want to run to your side, hold you in my arms, kiss your broken bones and bleeding bruises and whisper like a mother to her child–yes, that’s it–like a mother to her child because finally my heart opens with the dawning that it was never us who needed your mothering, but you who need ours…

So I whisper–

“America, I’m here, I won’t abandon you. I still believe in you, that you are so much better than this. You are so much better than this. You can be whole.”

And here is the secret hidden inside my stony heart that is crumbling and breaking for you because of the One who can draw even honey from the rock:

America, the Beautiful, I still have hope for you.

*Notes:

The song “America the Beautiful” was originally penned as a poem by Katharine Lee Bates, who was also “a social activist interested in the struggles of women, workers, people of color, tenement residents, immigrants, and poor people.[1][2] She helped organize the Denison House, a college women’s settlement house, with other women friends and colleagues in 1892.[1]:110 She wrote and spoke extensively about the need for social reform[2] and was an avid advocate for the global peace movement that emerged after World War I. She was especially active in attempts to establish the League of Nations.[1][2] Long an active Republican, Bates broke with the party to endorse Democratic presidential candidate John W. Davis in 1924 because of Republican opposition to American participation in the League of Nations. She said: “Though born and bred in the Republican camp, I cannot bear their betrayal of Mr. Wilson and their rejection of the League of Nations, our one hope of peace on earth.”[7]Thinking of herself as a “global citizen,” Bates decried the American policy of isolationism.[1](taken from Wikipedia. I know it’s not the greatest source but since this isn’t a research paper…:))

America the Beautiful

(1911 version)

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

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