This is the tenth in our series of essays on the state of poetry. For others, check our list.
O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
Let America be America Again
American writers (by that I mean U.S. writers) have long pursued the identity and idea of America (by America I mean the United States). The Frenchman-turned-American, Jean de Crèvecoeur, writing in New York shortly before the American Revolution, asks “What is an American?” in his Letters from an American farmer. Published in 1782, his book is written from the perspective of a fictional character corresponding to an English friend, in letters, or essays, ranging in subject matter from slavery to an emerging American identity. De Crèvecoeur writes:
What then . . . is this new man? He is either an [sic] European, or the descendant of an European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. He is an American . . .
Phillis Wheatley, a Gambian- or Senegalese-turned-American woman, published her first and only volume, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, in 1773. In it appears the poem “On being brought from Africa to America,” one of her rare comments on slavery. Wheatley, whose Americanness was not chosen by her, but whose dark Americanness (or perhaps Un-Americanness) was central to the nation’s economic development, writes as an American non-citizen (prior to 1776 because the U.S. had yet to be born; and after its birth by virtue of her race and gender). She writes out of the precarious state of enslavement in Boston:
Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic dye.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
While Wheatley credits slavery and the Divine for bringing her to Christianity, she employs that very Christianity to buttress a subtle argument for a more critical stance on the part of the reader toward slavery, and more obviously, a more favorable understanding of enslaved Africans and African-Americans.
Emma Lazarus, an American poet born of Portuguese Sephardic Jewish parents in New York, also writes America. In her 1883 sonnet, “The New Colossus,” she places in the mouth of Liberty the recognizable words, “Give me your tired, your poor, [y]our huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Engraved on a plaque mounted in 1903 at the base of Liberté éclairant le Monde—the Statue of Liberty, a gift to the United States from France—the poem transformed sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s statue from a symbol of intercontinental republican ideals and liberty to the Mother of exiles, the Mother of new Americans.
Lazarus, Wheatley, and de Crèvecoeur, while participating in the articulation of America, also demonstrate its multiplicity; that which has always marked Americans but presented a threat to the nation’s early theorists. The founding Fathers eschewed, at a critical moment in U.S. history, the considerable promise of a multicultural America for a monoculture constructed around Protestant Anglo cultural and political values and aesthetics; assigning freedom, citizenship, and agency to those most closely aligned with them. Any discussion of a national literature is underlain, I believe, with the often-tacit and long-standing tension between what America is and the idea of America.
American poet Langston Hughes, in a poem published in 1935, explores the distance between the American Dream and poor Americans: the poor white, the Negro, the Indian, the immigrant, the farmer, the worker. “Let America Be America Again” unyieldingly holds a mirror up to American inequity. At the same time it does not abandon a national ethos. Conveyed at the poem’s very end is the hope for an America that can live up to its expressed principles of democracy, and freedom for all. Through the poem, Hughes unites the aforementioned and various communities and identities within a framework of social justice.
America is best when it recognizes its inherent plurality. Americans are best when, embracing plurality, we move toward and seek to understand those around us. Americans are best when we are engaged and dialogic. Not presuming sameness paradoxically allows us to arrive at shared qualities. It allows us to see that, though different in many ways, de Crèvecoeur, Wheatley, and Lazarus, were each immigrants or the daughter of immigrants. They were bicultural, and bilingual, if not speakers of several languages. Wheatley and de Crèvecoeur shared in common the fact of publishers and great celebrity in Europe. Wheatley, Lazarus, and Hughes all engaged in literary translation (Wheatley of Roman poet Ovid; Lazarus of French and German poets; and Hughes most notably of Haitian novelist Jacques Roumain). Each writer read widely. Each pursued and maintained literary connections in the broad world. Each looked inward to America for a vision of it, and themselves. In the same spirit, American poetry as a body is best when it reflects America’s inherent pluralism and defies the monoculture America never truly was.
Danielle Legros Georges is a poet, essayist, and associate professor at Lesley University. She is a visiting faculty member of the William Joiner Institute Summer Writer’s Workshop, University of Massachusetts, Boston; and a Solstice Magazine consulting poetry editor. Her work includes a book of poetry Maroon (Curbstone, 2001) and poems in many journals and anthologies. Her poems are forthcoming in Callaloo, Transition, and World Literature.