It is black and white.
“I, too, sing of America” brings imagery of the Fourth of July, hotdogs, and smiling kids living oblivious to the hardships of life. The words themselves give me a nostalgia of life as a child living in America. Eating watermelon, running around with sparklers, playing in the sprinklers with the neighborhood kids and feeling like summertime could last forever. I’m presented with the connection of my white childhood and I don’t apologize for it, I revel in it and remember with gratitude and a warm feeling in my chest how great it should have been and partially was. It wasn’t perfect, but it was near, and as memory serves, it just gets better with age and the further reach of time and space.
I am grateful for reading Langston’s poem of the same ilk because it exposes my ignorance. It peels back the pinkish beige skin of my family line to reveal the truth of the matter underneath, that my skin has afforded me luxuries and privilege that I have long lived in ignorance of and thus have benefited from the American Dream in a way Langston never could have. I’m made aware of what James Baldwin meant when he said that “Beale Street is a street in New Orleans, where my father, where Louis Armstrong and the jazz were born. Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Harlem, New York. Beale Street is our legacy.” I see now how I may want them to know my experience and me to know theirs, but the reality is that we live in two different Americas.
Baldwin’s message of systematic racism was new to his era, it was unheard by the very people that he wanted to reach with his message, mainly because his voice was the target of those he was trying to educate. But Baldwin’s work is timeless and his message has lasted and now reaches another generation. A generation where the tiny black voices have accumulated and grown into a powerful, nationwide message of hope and change. The vox populi are more educated now and the veil has been rent from the eyes of the masses. We live in a political climate that exposes the truth of how deep racism still runs in our country. It has lain hidden for decades after the civil rights act believed by most that it was only experienced in small pockets of the South. But now we see it rear its ugly head in our neighbors and long time friends as it is encouraged from the top of the power pyramid and given a platform to be heard once again as a voice in this beautiful country.
We may no longer be a slave nation, but we have not really embraced and celebrated our black brothers and sisters as we would our own flesh pantone. We have not ceased to oppress and marginalize their existence and we most certainly have not asked them to eat at the table with us to remark on their beauty and listen to their tales of ancient rivers and the Jazz music.
When you combine what Baldwin has said along with Hughes you feel the desperation and hope of an entire people. These individual men have captured the experience and voice of a disenfranchised people and their dreams of being equal in the eyes of the oppressors they love. They want nothing more than to be free. To be truly free to just be. Without needing to watch out for the sneers or comments that slip by as whispers so loud they could incite riots or end families. They want to walk the streets hand in hand with their loved ones without watching strangers in their path cross the road in the name of discretion. They want their skin to mean beauty, strength and poise to all nations, not just their own. To be able to hold their heads high in public places and to hold positions of power and influence over all the faces of humanity.
Langston asks for “America to be America again” in the same manner that Baldwin asks for America to be America for him. They both share the rich history of the African culture and its impact on American history at the same time recognizing that America has never been what America was set out to be, for black people. They both list the ways that America is great and in the same breath it is not.
“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.”)”
Even with the pangs of slavery and racism in their recent family history, both Hughes and Baldwin believe in the dream that such an America could eventually exist. I think their beautiful contributions to the American experience have given us evidence and credence that America can, and will, eventually become what it was always meant to be,
the land of the free.