“Let America Be America Again”: Hughes & Trump’s Two Visions for America

langston hughes

Let America Be America Again

By Langston Hughes

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!

Let America Be America Again

Back in November, I was terrified by the prospect of a Trump presidency.  Today, I’m even more stumped at how such a man could conceivably win.  Bigoted, racist, misogynistic, bombastic, narcissistic.  Trump is a fear-mongering demagogue who deals in divisiveness and threatens to destroy the very foundations on which our democracy is built.  If you could somehow get past his unconscionable proposals to ban Muslim immigrants and build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, if you could somehow ignore his despicable behavior towards women, if you could somehow disregard the countless allegations women have made accusing him of sexual harassment and assault, how could you possibly ignore the fact that he doesn’t have the slightest clue as to how our government works?  Trump is a business man, not a politician.  While many right-wing nut jobs (looking at you, Sarah Palin) claim that’s his appeal, it’s only logical that a man with no experience in government would have a hard time in the White House.  Unlike Clinton who proposed detailed, meticulous plans to reach her objectives, Trump only made vague promises during his campaign…and offered no concrete means of fulfilling them.  Terrorism?  ‘Ban Muslims!’  Immigration?  ‘Build a wall!’  As J.K. Rowling so insightfully noted, Trumpism is synonymous with proposing “crude, unworkable solutions” to complex problems.

So how has this man rallied such passionate, borderline frenzied support?  Trump’s ascendancy can no doubt be attributed to a widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, a general feeling that the system is rigged against the little guy.  Trump sticks an unrepentant middle finger at social niceties: when he’s not calling his opponent a “nasty woman,” he’s telling Access Hollywood how he “grabs women by the pussies.”  Though such comments should be appalling, many Americans appreciate Trump’s particular brand of brash frankness.  To those disillusioned blue-collar workers in Trump Land, the Republican candidate’s refusal to succumb to modern standards of political correctness is part of his charm.  His reviling comments are even a badge of his honesty.  “Look what he openly says about minorities and women!” Trump nuts must think, “he won’t pussyfoot around the issues!”

The kinds of people Trump attracts are just one of the many ironies of last year’s election season.  Trump is a titan of the 1%, a New York City billionaire, not a self-made man but the product of generational nepotism, yet his campaign won the allegiance of millions of Trump soldiers from the lower middle classes.  Why?  Trump-of all people-won’t represent their interests; if anything, he’ll proceed to represent his own.  In office, you can bet he’ll slash taxes for the rich and continue an onslaught of dangerous economic reforms that will line the pockets of the elite and make the poor poorer.  Clinton has been a champion for the lower classes her whole career yet the white lower classes refused to vote for her.  She’s “untrustworthy,” “dishonest,” “power-hungry,” they said.  How, I wondered last November, how could people be so stupid?  How could people so blindly, willingly, enthusiastically vote against their own interests?!?!  

Because Trump stands as the master of the most effective political tactic of all: divide and conquer.  According to Karl Marx, father of the communist movement, the ruling class protects its power by pitting the lower ranks against each other.  Trump has been taking a play from the Hitler playbook all along.  Like the infamous furor, Trump capitalizes on the fear and discontent of average men to garner support for his cause.  And much like Hitler, Trump has found a convenient scapegoat to blame for all of America’s problems.  Whether it’s illegal immigrants or possible terrorist Muslims, Trump exploits the blue collar, white American fear of the foreign other…and the particularly white fear of losing their long-standing power.

Trump campaigned on the promise to “make America great again,” a promise many have interpreted to mean once again make America white, racist and exclusionary.  Like many of his conservative predecessors, Trump took advantage of a kind of widespread nostalgia, a yearning to resurrect our former national glory.  And like many, he exploited the inherent ambiguousness of the term “America.”  What does it really mean to be American?  What is America?  For the conservative, America is capitalist industry, rugged individualism, free markets; for the liberal, America is equality of opportunity, multiculturalism, diversity.  What, exactly, America is remains open to debate: it’s a relative term whose meaning shifts depending on the dictionary.

Unlike Trump who yearns for an America long past, poet Langston Hughes believes America is a dream that has yet to be fulfilled.  Though there’s a nostalgic quality to his longing (in the first line, he wistfully pleads, “Let America be America again” in a way that eerily echoes Trump’s campaign slogan), there’s equally a sense that America is an ideal we have yet to achieve.  In what will become a pattern in the first third of the poem, Hughes punctuates the end of the first stanza with a parenthetical aside:

“America,” he confesses, “was never America to me” (Hughes 5).  

Here “never” poses a logical contradiction: how can America be itself “again” if it “never” existed in the first place?  

Hughes may employ the romanticized images of our national history-the dauntless “pioneer,” for example, settling the rugged, untrammeled frontier-but he does so to reveal them as mythos.  Just as our history books conveniently rewrite the genocide of millions of Native Americans as the glorious fulfillment of manifest destiny, we cherish the American dream as truth when, for many, it’s nothing more than a fairy tale.  Hughes’s parenthetical speaker reminds us of this unsettling fact.  Though we pay lip service to democratic notions of tolerance and equality of opportunity, the fact that the speaker is syntactically ostracized by parentheses proves that “liberty and justice for all” ironically only applies to a privileged class.  

One of Hughes’s many narrative talents is his ability to shift perspectives.  Later in the poem, he adopts the voice of mainstream America, an America who’s shocked-even a little offended-that someone could make such a claim:

Say who are you that mumbles in the dark?

And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?” (Hughes 17-18).  

Here, the presence of italics indicates the intrusion of another voice, one we haven’t heard before.  Because these lines are phrased as questions, we can assume they’re directed at someone.  But who?  Hughes’s choice of words might provide some insight.  The people to whom the speaker refers are not expressing themselves loudly or confidently but “mumble” which suggests they’re silenced and marginalized.  “Darkness” furthers this idea as those he addresses are literally rendered invisible by ignorance and denial.  If we consider the context of the poem, it makes sense that the voice is responding to our earlier parenthetical speaker:

“There’s never been equality for me

No freedom in this ‘homeland of the free'” (Hughes 15-16).

For most Americans, the realization of their country’s hypocrisy is too devastating to bear.  Who, they wonder, would draw such a “veil across the stars?” (Hughes 18).  If stars are proud symbols of American patriotism, the fact that such accusations draw a “veil” across them implies America’s legacy of exclusion diminishes the speaker’s national pride.  The word itself carries solemn connotations, evoking doleful images of attending a funeral.  However, the only thing that’s died is our speaker’s aggrandized portrait of America.  Turns out the “dream” he’s treasured so dearly is just that, a dream-it only exists in the abstract.

So “who,” to return to our earlier question, is our speaker addressing? who is “mumbling in the dark”?  The answer comes in the following lines:

“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” (Hughes 19-22).  

For Hughes, it is the presence of the working-class man, the Indian and African American, that indisputably proves the American dream an enticing but ultimately untrue fiction.  His use of Whitman-esque anaphora proves the defining feature of the stanza.  Each beginning with the emphatic repetition of “I am” before listing yet another class barred access to the American dream, these lines reflect Hughes’s vision for his homeland.  In much the same way that each line originates in the same place but ends in difference, in Hughes’s America, each person is bound by a common identity but permitted the freedom of their own distinct individuality.  The poor white man, the Negro, the red man driven from his rightful home: though at the time this poem was published such minority groups were still struggling for self-determination, Hughes believed they had an equal right to sit at the American table.  Today in the era of Trump, this same struggle continues.  While Hughes’s America is expansive enough to accommodate a multitude of voices, Trump’s America seems terrifyingly restrictive.  

But when the future of our nation seems bleak, as it does today, we must not despair.  Rather we should remember Hughes’s rousing words: though he says it “plain” that “America never was America to me,” at the end of the poem, he swears a triumphant oath that “America will be!”

The Monster Factory: Perpetrators & Victims in Orange is the New Black’s Season Finale

orange is the new black

The smell of gun powder lingered in the air as a pool of blood collected on the stoop outside 1157 Wheeler Ave.  After an eruption of gunfire, an uneasy silence settled over the working-class Bronx neighborhood.  Amadou Diallo, a street peddler from Guinea, lay sprawled on the street just outside his brick apartment building, nineteen bullets pierced through his 22-year-old body.  “Where’s the gun?” police officer Ken Boss shrieked frantically as he searched the area, “Where’s the fucking gun?”  The only thing in sight was a black wallet between Diallo’s lifeless fingers.

America had always held a magical place in the young Diallo’s imagination.  America, particularly New York, was the land of limitless opportunity, a beacon of hope that glimmered with the promise of self-fulfillment and possibility.  When Diallo told his family of his ambitions to move to the big city, his mother, Kadiatou Diallo, wasn’t surprised, “When I look at pictures of him now, he’s always wearing USA T-shirts and caps,” she realized, “To be here was always his dream.”  His father, Saikou Diallo, shared the sentiment, “Amadou was the kind of boy who had ambition to go to school and to be somebody,” he told the New York Times.

Born in Liberia on September 2, 1976, Diallo was the eldest of four children.  Unlike many who come to America, his upbringing was well-to-do: his parents owned a successful business exporting gemstones from Africa to Asia and him and his siblings lived around the world.  Diallo attended the International School in Thailand, then the Computer Institute in Singapore, an affiliate of Cambridge.  He was fond of literature and spoke five languages: Fulani, the native language of Guinea, English, French, Thai, and Spanish.  In America, he hoped to earn his high school equivalency and eventually enroll in college.

Determined to realize his starry-eyed ambitions, Diallo immigrated to New York in 1997, renting a modest apartment in the poverty-stricken Soundview neighborhood in the Bronx.  To support himself, he sold tube socks and CDs on Manhattan’s East 14th Street.  Peddling was disheartening and the money was poor.  But Diallo remained upbeat.  He worked hard and, despite his meager earnings, was generous and always willing to help those in need.  Mourning their lost friend, those close to him remember Diallo stopping to give beggars his spare change though he barely made enough to pay his own rent.  Shahin Chowdhury, the owner of the C & B Convenience Store where Diallo helped with the occasional odd job, said of the young man, ”He was a jewel.  I will never forget him.”

It was a little after ten p.m. on February 3rd 1999, when Diallo decided to pack up his tables and head home to 1157 Wheeler Ave.  A devout Muslim, he said his evening prayers and strolled into the tranquil night just as he had every night since moving to America.  At home, he ate dinner, chatted with his room mates, and then stepped outside for some fresh air.  A few minutes later, four plainclothes police officers, Ken Boss, Sean Carroll, Edward McMellon, and Richard Murphy, turned onto his street in an unmarked car.  The men, who were members of the Street Crime Unit, a special division of the New York Police Department tasked with patrolling the city’s toughest neighborhoods, saw Diallo outside his apartment and thought he matched the description of a serial rapist who had been terrorizing the area.  Thinking he looked “suspicious,” the police officers approached.  “Police!” McMellon shouted, holding up his badge, “Can we have a word?”  Diallo didn’t answer.  Though it’s impossible to know exactly what was going through his mind, it seems reasonable to assume Diallo was scared: it was after midnight in a neighborhood devastated by crime and the police officers were wearing jeans, sweatshirts and baseball caps— not uniforms.  They were, however, holding police-issued 9-millimeter semi-automatic handguns.  Moreover, Diallo’s English was proficient, not perfect, so if McMellon did in fact identify himself as a police officer as he would later testify, it’s possible Diallo simply didn’t understand what was going on.  Perhaps all he saw were four large men with guns.

What happens next is a series of irreversible decisions made far too rashly.  Terrified for his life, Diallo ran to the building’s front door.  As he twisted the doorknob with his left hand, he reached in his pocket with his right.  “Gun, he has a gun!” Carroll cried out.  Carroll and his fellow officers then preceded to unleash a barrage of bullets, firing a total of forty-one times.  When the smoke cleared, Boss searched the “menacing rapist” for his “gun” but a weapon was nowhere to be found.  The only thing in Diallo’s hand was a black rectangular object.  The officers had mistook his wallet for a gun.

Senseless deaths like Diallo’s are far from uncommon.  Twenty years after Diallo’s tragic demise, police brutality persists.  But thanks to the dedicated activism of the Black Lives Matter movement, these appalling cases have gained much deserved publicity and entered the foreground of public consciousness.  Like most, I’m outraged that in our supposedly equitable and fair democratic society, police officers so unapologetically abuse their power to target racial minorities.  A hard-working street peddler from Guinea is brutally shot forty-one times for looking “suspicious” while simply stepping outside his own apartment for some fresh air?  How does this happen?  When horrific miscarriages of justice such as Diallo’s occur, who do we condemn?  who do we hold responsible?

Sometimes the officer is at fault: he’s prejudiced or power-hungry.  But other times, both perpetrators and victims of police brutality are casualties of larger social, historical forces: widespread racial bias, lack of training, or the justice system in general.

Orange is the New Black handles these issues in its fourth season’s final episodes masterfully.  After a season simmering with racial tension, Litchfield’s women unite to protest the sadistic practices of punitive police captain Piscatella.  Outraged that a guard was killed on his watch, he forcefully grabs a feeble-looking Red by the arm and makes an announcement to the cafeteria: “Things have been pretty lax around here if you ask me, so lax, in fact, that one of my men was murdered on prison property by one of you.  It seems like somewhere along the way, everyone around here forgot the only thing that matters.  You’re criminals and you deserve nothing.”  Here, Piscatella embodies a pernicious belief in “us vs. them.”  Because he demonizes the inmates under his watch and is so quick to dehumanize them, he immediately breaks up a peaceful protest, which leads to riotous chaos and Poussey’s unnecessary murder.

piscatella

The most obvious victim of the Orange is the New Black’s season finale is Poussey.  Of all Litchfield’s inmates, she didn’t deserve to die: she wasn’t a violent offender or gang banger—hell, she barely even qualified as a “criminal.”  When the MCC’s lawyers try to paint her as a dangerous threat to excuse Bailey’s excessive use of force (and, more importantly, save themselves from a PR nightmare and potentially very expensive lawsuit), they come up with diddly squat.  “She was convicted for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute…not even half an ounce!” they groan defeated.  “Even her intake shot is adorable!”  

As is characteristic of Orange is the New Black, the last episode relies on the clever use of flashbacks to relay characters’ back stories.  In “Toast Will Never Be Bread Again” the device is never used so poignantly.  After Poussey is accidentally murdered, we see her on the night before her arrest.  The night—much like her future—beckons with magical possibility: she parties with a hilarious group of drag queens who say she looks like Whitney, smokes a joint with an Improv group dressed as monks and contemplates her exciting new life in Amsterdam, a life—we know—she’ll never have.  

poussey

As is often the case in instances of police brutality, we may feel tempted to villanize Bayley as a bigoted, corrupt cop.  But Bayley, too, is a victim.  Orange is the New Black consistently portrays him as one of the only “good” guards along with Coates (though Coates’s membership in that class is more debatable).  Bayley’s involvement in Piper’s panty smuggling ring seems laughably innocent compared to Hump’s disturbing mind games and Piscatella’s sadism.  

Is Bayley flawed?  Yes.  But he’s also redeemable.  Though he participates in the idiotic mischief of adolescence— he trespasses to climb a terrifyingly high water tower and smoke pot, he indirectly steals from his boss when he gives away $30 of free ice cream a day to cute girls— he isn’t malicious.  When Bayley and his friends embark on yet another one of their juvenile shenanigans and egg his ex-boss’s house, he participates willingly.  “No one fires Baxter Bayley!” he laughs, reassured.  

Later as the boys pass through the crimson trees of the Litchfield prison grounds, they see half a dozen inmates raking leaves.  “Everyone armed?” Bayley’s handsome, Abercrombie-looking friend asks excitedly, “On my count. One, two, three!”  Bayley and his friends then chuck eggs at the unsuspecting women. “You think that’s funny?”  Frieda screams infuriated, “I’m a fucking human being!”  Seeing Frieda’s reaction, the futility of her outrage (after all, he gets to drive away; she gets shoved by a CO and is forced to go back to work), Bayley’s boyish amusement quickly metamorphoses into empathy…and shame at his own behavior.

What’s brilliant about Orange is the New Black is that it recognizes the fundamental unfairness of holding Bayley completely accountable for Poussey’s murder.  At first, MCC’s lawyers want to shift blame onto Poussey but when they realize that’s not going to work, they decide to use Bayley as a scapegoat.  But in the end, is it fair to point the finger at either party?  Poussey never posed a threat, never displayed a predilection for violence but Bayley wasn’t a rouge cop either: he was simply an incompetent, poorly trained guard whose lack of training led him to panic and make a fatal error.

bayley

The season finale’s genius lies in this very ambiguity.  Though we as an audience possess enough context to recognize the impossibility of neatly classifying those involved as perpetrators and victims, the question of responsibility obstinately asserts itself throughout the episode: if Bayley’s not to blame, who is?

Despite MCC’s attempts to craft a “story” and cast clear villains and victims, we know the real story is far more complex than that.  Poussey wouldn’t have died had Piscatella not irresponsibly ordered the guards to break up a peaceful protest.  She wouldn’t have died had Humps not forced two mentally unstable inmates to barbarically fight the night before.  And she wouldn’t have died had Crazy Eyes not been so traumatized from brutalizing her former lover that she started attacking Bayley.  Poussey’s murder is the tragic result— not of a single man’s misconduct— but of a system, which makes her death all the more upsetting.  After all, bad apples can be thrown in prison— bad barrels cannot.

The only character that bridges the perpetrator/victim divide is Caputo, whose negligence throughout the season makes him a tacit accomplice in MCC’s failures.  In many ways, Caputo begins as a victim.  Whenever he wants to make positive changes at Litchfield, he meets yet another road block in his path: if it’s not maddening bureaucracy, it’s the heartless, corporate obsession with the bottom line.  At one point in the season, he tries to launch an educational program only to have most of his ideas scraped.  “What happened to all my classes?” he asks Linda as he hopelessly searches Litchfield’s course catalog, “There’s no science, no English, no math.  None of these classes were in my original proposal!”  Turns out rehabilitation through education was just a ploy to exploit free labor.  Rather than offer real courses that could break the nasty recidivism cycle, MCC decides to provide “life skill” classes like “Cement 101” instead.  Caputo’s understandably upset but— like Figueroa before him— his hands are tied with red tape. 

This is just one of Caputo’s many compromises: at first, he compromises his ideas for restorative justice reforms like education and, at first, such compromises seem reasonable.  After all, “Cement 101” might not be exactly what he envisioned but at least it’s a start.  But as the season progresses, we see Caputo strike a Faustian bargain of sorts: to be warden, he exchanges his morality for a sharp $1,000 suit.  Caputo may be one of the only morally upstanding members of MCC’s privatized prison machinery but he’s still guilty by association.  It’s his absence that enables this tragedy in the first place.  What if he had been there the night the body was found?  What if he had fired Piscatella?  Like the first domino, what Caputo does (or doesn’t do) sets a whole chain of events in motion.caputo

On one hand, Caputo’s refusal to scapegoat Bayley at the end of the episode is a triumph but— as film critic Myles McNutt notes—”it is a hollow victory. It is a victory in that he is resisting the narrative MCC is presenting, but it is a failure in that it fails to acknowledge the full complexity of what really happened in that cafeteria.”  Caputo may accurately recognize that Bayley was a “victim of circumstance” but— by refusing to name the true perpetrator— he condones the actual forces responsible for Poussey’s murder.  In his statement, he never mentions Humps, he never mentions Piscatella.  More importantly, he never mentions the million and one institutional failures that culminated in this disaster.  And the cost of these failures is high.  Just as toast can never be bread again, Bayley can never recover his innocence and Poussey can never be brought back from the dead.  

So when horrific miscarriages of justice happen, who do we hold responsible?  There’s no one to blame but the system that renders such events inevitable.

“This place crushes anything good,” a distraught Caputo warns in a moment of smartly crafted foreshadowing, “It’s like a monster that’s grown too big for its stubby little legs and now it’s stumbling around crushing whole cities.  You can’t survive it.”  

“Which one are you,” asks Bayley, “the city or the monster?”

“Neither,” he stutters, “Both…Even if you’re the city now, one day you’ll be the monster.”

Langston Hughes’s “In Explanation of Our Times”

langston hughes

In Explanation of Our Times

By Langston Hughes

The folks with no titles in front of their names

all over the world

are raring up and talking back

to the folks called Mister.

You say you thought everybody was called Mister?

No, son, not everybody.

In Dixie, often they won’t call Negroes Mister.

In China before what happened

They had no intention of calling coolies Mister.

Dixie to Singapore, Cape Town to Hong Kong

the Misters won’t call lots of other folks Mister.

They call them, Hey George!

Here, Sallie!

Listen, Coolie!

Hurry up, Boy!

And things like that.

George Sallie Coolie Boy gets tired sometimes.

So all over the world today

folks with not even Mister in front of their names

are raring up and talking back

to those called Mister.

From Harlem past Hong Kong talking back.

Shut up, says Gerald L.K. Smith.

Shut up, says the Governor of South Carolina.

Shut up, says the Governor of Singapore.

Shut up, says Strydom.

Hell no shut up! say the people

with no titles in front of their names.

Hell no! It’s time to talk back now!

History says it’s time,

And the radio, too, foggy with propaganda

that says a mouthful

and don’t mean half it says–

but is true anyhow:

LIBERTY!

FREEDOM!

DEMOCRACY!

True anyhow no matter how many

Liars use those words.

The people with no titles in front of their names

hear these words and shout them back

at the Misters, Lords, Generals, Viceroys,

Governors of South Carolina, Gerald L. K. Strydoms.

Shut up, people!

Shut up! Shut up!

Shut up, George!

Shut up, Sallie!

Shut up, Coolie!

Shut up, Indian!

Shut up, Boy!

George Sallie Coolie Indian Boy

black brown yellow bent down working

earning riches for the whole world

with no title in front of name

just man woman tired says:

No shut up!

Hell no shut up!

So naturally, there’s trouble

in these our times

because of people with no titles

in front of their names.

Socrates once said “the misuse of language induces evil in the soul.”  Langston Hughes would agree that words have the power to denigrate and belittle, stigmatize and insult.  In his poem “In Explanation of Our Times,” Hughes reflects on language as an instrument of political power.  The poem opens with coming social revolution:

The folks with no titles in front of their names/all over the world/are raring up and talking back/to the folks called Mister” (Hughes 4).  

Right away, we see the world divided into 2 classes: the oppressor and oppressed, the folks with “no titles” and the folks called “Mister.”  

Though language is a discourse each of us participates in everyday, as a poet Hughes respects its power to shape and define our reality.  From the very beginning of the poem, society weaponizes language to define poor people of color as inferior.  The fact that the lower classes possess no “title” in front of their names immediately identifies them as less than; if a formal address like “Mr.” or “Mrs.” denotes esteem and status, the lack of such a title suggests the majority of people regard African Americans as second-class citizens.  Furthermore, the absence of an honorific or professional title implies people of color aren’t treated with the slightest civility or respect.  Generally, you address someone as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” when they’re older or more experienced than you; the fact that African Americans aren’t addressed with such formality proves they are not only oppressed- they are disdained.  The clear split between the downtrodden and oppressed African American on the one hand and the tyrannical white oppressor “Mister” on the other hints at the severity of social division and foreshadows coming civic unrest.  Though disenfranchised and consigned to the most squalid urban ghettos, here African Americans aren’t passively tolerating their marginalization-they’re fighting against it.  But rather than fight physically through riots or protest, people of color are “talking back.”  So though language can be mobilized to subjugate and tyrannize communities, it can also be marshaled to remedy injustice and topple those in power.

 Interestingly, the simple, singular noun “Mister” refers more broadly to racism in general.  By personifying racism as a capitalized proper “Mister,” Hughes reveals the might of those in power.  Racism is not a single law or the isolated opinion of a few bigots-racism is an institutional practice sanctioned and supported by the government to disempower.  Thus, the personification of “Mister” proves the battle against racism will not be easily won.

In the next stanza, we suddenly shift to a direct 2nd person address when the speaker addresses the audience as “you”:

You say you thought everybody was called Mister?” (Hughes 5).  

By employing the 2nd person “you,” Hughes creates a sense of immediacy while he involves us directly in the action of the poem.  Who “you” is, however, depends on who’s reading his verse.  The anonymity of the 2nd person implies the majority of Americans believe “everybody is called Mister,” which suggests most of us haven’t experienced the racism relayed by the speaker.

Though, as an audience, we may be unaware of the hardships African Americans face, Hughes never takes a scolding, condescending tone toward our ignorance; instead, he positions us as mentees/students and the speaker as our guide/teacher:

No, son,” he answers in response to our question, “not everybody” (Hughes 6).  

Here, the affectionate, endearing “son” portrays the speaker-not as a ruthless crusader bent on punishing us for our ignorance-but as a sympathetic friend who simply wants to inform.  In the next few lines, Hughes explains that underprivileged people of color around the world are despised:

In Dixie, often they won’t call Negroes Mister./ In China before what happened/ They had no intention of calling collies Mister./ Dixie to Singapore, Cape Town to Hong Kong/ the Misters won’t call lots of other folks Mister” (Hughes 7-11).  

Much like the ambiguous “you” that shifts depending on who’s reading the poem, “they” is left with no clear antecedent- who “they” is remains open to argument.  By leaving the 1st person plural “they” without a referent, Hughes reinforces the idea that the perpetrators of racism are difficult to spot; the oppressor isn’t just 1 person or even 1 group of people- the oppressor is an entire establishment that exists around the world and is thus difficult to reform.  

In the following lines we see how, once again, those in power manipulate language to disempower African Americans and maintain the status quo:

They call them, Hey George!/ Here, Sallie!/ Listen, Coolie!/ Hurry up, Boy!” (Hughes 12-16).  

If names represent the heart of our identities, the fact that African Americans are only addressed by their first names and not by professional titles reveals their subordinate status in American culture.  Not only are African Americans refused the formality of Mr. and Mrs., but they are denied even the most basic courtesy and respect.  Bossy, aggressive words like “hey!”, “here!”, and “listen!” create a string of commands, positioning African Americans as obedient dogs and white Americans as their masters.  

Hughes admits that “George Sallie Coolie Boy gets tired” from such mistreatment, which proves language can deeply wound and insult (Hughes 18).  Grammatically, “George Sallie Collie Boy” act as a singular subject separated by neither ands nor commas.  This lack of proper punctuation coupled with the presence of “gets”-a singular verb-has the effect of fusing George, Sallie, Collie and Boy together as if they were one person.  Why does Hughes do this?  An English teacher may look at this line and shriek in horror at the subject-verb disagreement but a good reader will realize such grammatical blunders were very much intentional.  By omitting the proper ands and commas and using a singular verb, Hughes depicts African Americans not as individuals but as a class of people, suggesting language has the capacity to dehumanize through stereotype.  

The racist classification of African Americans as “non-Misters” is what Socrates would call a “misuse of language” that arouses evil in the soul.  To use language to deprive other people of rights can only lead, Hughes shows, to chaos.  Angry and outraged as a result of their mistreatment, African Americans are left with no choice but to revolt.  And despite the unrelenting efforts to silence them (“shut up!” is repeated a staggering eleven times over the course of the poem), they refuse to be ignored (“No shut up!” the downtrodden cry, “Hell no shut up!”).  The last stanza confirms that a clash between classes is inevitable:

“So, naturally, there’s trouble/ in these our times/ because of people with no titles” (Hughes 59-62).  

Though refusing to call a black man “mister” may seem petty or insignificant, such subtle acts of racism have devastating effects over the long-term.  As the coordinating conjunction “so” demonstrates, the tension of Hughes’s time (and ours) is a direct result of the unfair oppression of a class of people.  Just as the Chinese had “no intention” of ever calling Coolies mister before the Coolies rose up against Chinese power, America-Hughes argues-won’t grant African Americans equal rights until tensions explode in revolution and upheaval.