Langston Hughes & the IWO: Making America Be America

A New Song

In 1938 the International Workers Order published A New Song, a short collection of poetry written by Langston Hughes and the first in a series of peoples’ literary pamphlets. 

The poems in the volume foreground the common struggle of workers all over the world and call upon every ordinary person to take up the fight for racial and economic justice.

This February Yiddishkayt celebrates Black History Month and the birth of legendary black poet Langston Hughes. Born February 1, 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes is best known for his jazz poetry (an antecedent to the Beat poets, as well as contemporary hip-hop and slam poetry) and his role in New York’s Harlem Renaissance, the urban renewal movement led by African American culture makers. But perhaps less is remembered about Hughes’s connection to Yiddish-speaking cultural and political activists.

Dedicated to creating a proud working class culture rooted in folk traditions and cross-cultural alliances, Hughes and the IWO found common cause. The organization was formed in 1930 by the left faction of the Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle after years of heated political fights. It became one of the largest multilingual fraternal organizations in the United States, providing mutual aid and insurance, and openly embracing communist principles and practices—including an unwavering commitment to racial solidarity and ending race hatred. With 14 cultural groups and languages represented in its different sections, the Jewish section was the IWO’s largest.

Michael Gold, the IWO’s preeminent proletarian writer and editor of the workers’ literary journal New Masses, explains in his introduction to A New Song how the IWO chose Hughes’s work to debut their series to “break down the artificial barriers erected between people. Fraternalism means brotherhood; and the poetry of Langston Hughes is a true expression of our ideals because it is an impassioned cry for humanity and brotherhood.”

In their campaign to present literature to a popular audience, the IWO printed 10,000 copies of A New SongRead its opening poem Let America Be America Again, created by the activists and writers who fought to make America classless, free, and a just home for people of every background.

Let America Be America Again

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!

 

Listen here to a recording of Langston Hughes reading his 1926 poem I, Too, which now adorns the wall of National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington D.C.