Today we have a Langston Hughes doubleheader. I used to think of him solely as a poet, until a few years ago when I taught his short story collection The Ways of White Folks to high school students and realized he was an incredible prose writer, too. I also used to think of him as a writer of great moral urgency and seriousness, but then I discovered that he is very funny as well. His work often seems unadorned, even simple on first read, and it is accessible to middle and high school students, but beneath the direct prose style is tremendous depth, wit, and irony.
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."
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,
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!
Thank You, Ma’am (Excerpt)
She was a large woman with a large purse that had everything in it but hammer and nails. It had a long strap, and she carried it slung across her shoulder. It was about eleven o’clock at night, and she was walking alone, when a boy ran up behind her and tried to snatch her purse. The strap broke with the single tug the boy gave it from behind. But the boy’s weight and the weight of the purse combined caused him to lose his balance so, instead of taking off full blast as he had hoped, the boy fell on his back on the sidewalk, and his legs flew up. The large woman simply turned around and kicked him right square in his blue-jeaned sitter. Then she reached down, picked the boy up by his shirt front, and shook him until his teeth rattled.
After that the woman said, “Pick up my pocketbook, boy, and give it here.” She still held him. But she bent down enough to permit him to stoop and pick up her purse. Then she said, “Now ain’t you ashamed of yourself?”
Firmly gripped by his shirt front, the boy said, “Yes’m.”
The woman said, “What did you want to do it for?”
The boy said, “I didn’t aim to.”
She said, “You a lie!”
By that time two or three people passed, stopped, turned to look, and some stood watching.
“If I turn you loose, will you run?” asked the woman.
“Yes’m,” said the boy.
“Then I won’t turn you loose,” said the woman. She did not release him.
“I’m very sorry, lady, I’m sorry,” whispered the boy.
“Um-hum! And your face is dirty. I got a great mind to wash your face for you. Ain’t you got nobody home to tell you to wash your face?”
“No’m,” said the boy.
“Then it will get washed this evening,” said the large woman starting up the street, dragging the frightened boy behind her.
He looked as if he were fourteen or fifteen, frail and willow-wild, in tennis shoes and blue jeans.
The woman said, “You ought to be my son. I would teach you right from wrong. Least I can do right now is to wash your face. Are you hungry?”
“No’m,” said the being dragged boy. “I just want you to turn me loose.”
“Was I bothering you when I turned that corner?” asked the woman.
“But you put yourself in contact with me,” said the woman. “If you think that that contact is not going to last awhile, you got another thought coming. When I get through with you, sir, you are going to remember Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones.”
Who is this guy?
Perhaps the most well-known artist of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes was a poet, essayist, short story writer, novelist, and playwright. Born in Missouri in 1901, Hughes began writing at a young age, finding inspiration from his grandmother who helped raise him, and his high school Latin teacher, Helen Maria Chesnutt. He had a varied, peripatetic young adulthood, studying for a year at Columbia University and working as a cook, waiter, doorman, and sailor, and traveling to Paris, Mexico, West Africa, the Azores, and more by the time he published his first book. Hughes reached many readers through his creation Jesse B. Semple, a character who seems on first glance a stereotype but served as a vehicle for Hughes to expose the realities of living in a racist country. Hughes was awarded a Guggenheim in 1935, and founded theater troupes in Los Angeles and Chicago. His critics sometimes accused him of being insufficiently political, too focused instead of aesthetics and morality, although he was drawn to Communism, traveled to the Soviet Union, and published in the CPUSA newspaper. He died of prostate cancer in 1967. In his work, Donald B. Gibson wrote, Hughes used “language and themes, attitudes and ideas familiar to anyone who had the ability simply to read . . . Until the time of his death, he spread his message humorously—though always seriously—to audiences throughout the country, having read his poetry to more people (possibly) than any other American poet."
Take a cue from “Thank You, Ma’am” and write a scene, story, or essay using mostly dialogue.
Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to firstname.lastname@example.org