In the 1920s, a revolution began that would change the face of American culture: the Harlem Renaissance.
The spark of the Harlem Renaissance can be traced to the writings of W.E.B. DuBois. DuBois questioned how Black people in the U.S. could create an identity for themselves that encompassed their African ancestry while under the blanket of societal practices that sought to strip them of such an identity.
The result was a mass exploration by Black Americans in several diverse fields across the country. The revolution earned the nickname “Harlem Renaissance” because the New York City borough seemed to be the epicenter.
One of the most famous writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance was poet and novelist Langston Hughes. Hughes’ ability to convey the feelings a lot of Black Americans felt made him one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. His work is still often quoted to this day.
The American Dream is a theme Hughes often visited in his work. Hughes expressed hope for its fruition, but more often expressed the reality of the time: that freedom, justice, equality and fairness didn’t exist for all of the types of people in the United States.
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.
— from Let America Be America Again (1938)
A Hughes work commonly quoted is Let America Be America Again. In the poem, he espouses on the principles America was founded upon–as stated in documents such as the Declaration of Independence–while pointing out the principles are more working theory than fact.
One thing I respect about Hughes’ work is that despite being in the midst of the struggle for civil rights, he doesn’t limit the inconsistencies of the American Dream in practice to just Black people. His writings include references to poor Whites, Indians, immigrants, and all the other who, as literary critic James Presley once stated, “share the dream that has not been.”
It’s amazing that themes so prevalent 80 years ago are still at the forefront today.