America Already Is America
The Stalinist roots of John Kerry's new slogan.
In the June 1 New York Times, David M. Halbfinger reports that the Kerry campaign thinks it's found a winning slogan in "Let America be America again." They couldn't be more wrong.
Start with its provenance. The line is the title of a poem published in 1938 by Langston Hughes, the celebrated black poet of the Harlem Renaissance. The Times notes, in passing, that when Kerry first used the poem (in a speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education), he skipped the following "bitter aside on racism":
(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")
But to call this a "bitter aside" is willfully to misread the poem. Anyone who takes the time to read "Let America Be America Again" will quickly understand that its entire thrust is that nostalgia for a golden age of American freedom is a crock. In the poem, idealized paeans to "the dream [America] used to be" alternate with parenthetical responses exposing the harsher reality ("America never was America to me"). Who is this angry dissenter? Hughes answers in a voice that echoes Walt Whitman's:
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 so on. Rather than pretend America ever was the land of the free (remember, this was written by a black man in the Jim Crow era), Hughes urges his heterogeneous countrymen to fulfill for the first time America's promise of freedom:
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—America will be!
"Let America Be America Again," you may have noticed, is not one of Hughes' better efforts. Like a lot of poetry written during the Great Depression, it's didactic and influenced by naive admiration for the Soviet experiment. Hughes never joined the Communist Party, but he published frequently in its house organs and served as president to the party's principal African-American front group. The same year "Let America Be America Again" was published, Hughes signed a letter supporting the Stalinist purges; he had witnessed, with approval, one of the show trials himself. (He attended it with Arthur Koestler, who was horrified by the proceeding.) Hughes later came to his senses and regained his artistry, but, unlike his contemporary Richard Wright, never fully renounced his pro-Communist past. None of this is a secret to the anti-Kerry forces, who have begun to make hay with it.
As a slogan, "Let America be America again" doesn't improve much when you put Hughes out of your mind and focus on the words themselves. The intended meaning is clear: Let's restore the good things about this country that George W. Bush took away. There's also a hint of nostalgia specifically for the prosperous Clinton era. Chatterbox applauds these sentiments. But there's something pompous and snotty about the way they're expressed. (That's why Hughes chose these particular words to lampoon idealization of America's past.) America may be badly governed at the moment, but it's still America. The slogan "Let America be America again" is like HBO's annoying slogan, "It's not TV. It's HBO." As Larry David grumpily retorts on (HBO's) Curb Your Enthusiasm, "It's not TV? It's TV. What do they think people are watching?"
Ten years ago, liberals justifiably hit the roof when the rabidly Republican Rep. Dick Armey, addressing Democrats on the House floor, said, "Your president is just not that important to us." He's your president, too, they answered. How does Armey's rude distancing differ from saying that Bush's America isn't really America? When Richard Goodwin titled his memoir about working in the Kennedy and Johnson White Houses, Remembering America, it was an annoying act of generational hubris. America remained America after you retreated to Massachusetts to write your play about Galileo, thank you very much. Similarly, America will remain America even if John Kerry loses the next election.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of John Kerry by Robert Sorbo/Reuters.