27 pages 54 minutes read

Langston Hughes

Let America Be America Again

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1936

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Langston Hughes wrote “Let America Be America Again” on a train journey from New York to Oberlin, Ohio, in October 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression. It was published the following year in Esquire. The magazine, however, printed only the first 50 lines of the poem. The full version was published two years later, in 1938, in Hughes’s collection A New Song. With its inspiring, patriotic vision, in which the speaker identifies with a range of different races and groups, and its passionate call for the nation to live up to its ideals for all of its citizens, “Let America Be America Again” soon became one of Hughes’s best-known poems. He would recite it often at public readings and it has been reprinted many times.

Poet Biography

Poet, short-story writer, novelist, and dramatist Langston Hughes was born on February 1, 1901, in Joplin, Missouri. His parents divorced when he was a young child, and his father, James Nathaniel Hughes, moved to Mexico. Until the age of 13, Hughes was raised by Mary Langston, his maternal grandmother. After her death in 1915, he moved to Lincoln, Illinois, where he lived with his mother and her second husband. The family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, the following year. By that time, Hughes had already begun writing poetry, and he published both poetry and short stories in his high school magazine. He was elected class poet in 1920, the year of his graduation.

After graduation Hughes spent a year in Mexico with his father and then enrolled in Columbia University. He withdrew a year later. During this period, he worked various jobs such as delivery boy and assistant cook. He sailed on a steamship that traded on the west coast of Africa. He also sailed to Europe; in 1924, he lived in Paris for a few months. In November of that year, he moved to Washington, DC, where he lived with his mother for a year. His first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, was published in 1926. It received mostly positive reviews. By that point, Hughes was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and he would continue to be known for his presentation of the African American experience in America during his lifetime. He published a second poetry collection, Fine Clothes to the Jew, in 1927.

In 1929, Hughes completed his degree at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. The following year, his first novel, Not Without Laughter, won the Harmon Foundation Medal for literature. Hughes would publish a second novel, The Sweet Flypaper of Life, in 1955. Dear Lovely Death, a collection of poems about death, was published in 1931, and in 1935, Hughes received a Guggenheim Fellowship. A New Song, which included “Let America Be America Again,” was published in 1938.

Hughes also published collections of short stories, including The Ways of White Folks (1934) and Laughing to Keep from Crying (1952). In a regular column he wrote for the Chicago Defender beginning in 1943, he introduced a fictional character named Jesse B. Simple, a kind of Harlem everyman. He collected these columns and published a number of Simple books, beginning with Simple Speaks His Mind in 1950.

Hughes also wrote plays such as Mule Bone (cowritten with Zora Neale Hurston, 1931), Mulatto (which opened on Broadway in 1935), The Sun Do Move (1942), and the musical play Black Nativity (1961). The latter premiered on Broadway just before Christmas and was a resounding success. Hughes’s autobiography, The Big Sea, appeared in 1940, and he also wrote many books for children, including The Dream Keeper, a collection of poems that presented America as a country where young people could achieve their dreams.

Hughes died of complications from prostate cancer surgery on May 22, 1967, in New York City.

Poem Text

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,


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!

Hughes, Langston. “Let America Be America Again.” 1938. Poetry Foundation.


Lines 1-5

The poem begins with a four-line rhymed stanza that announces the theme. The speaker states that America must rediscover itself; it must regain the dream it once had of itself. In Line 3, the speaker invokes America’s past, when the pioneers were settling the plains; their goal was to build a home in which they could be free.

A single line follows in parentheses, in which the speaker refers to himself (“me”) in a way that contradicts or modifies the expansive vision of American ideals with which he began the poem. That ideal America was never the country that he lived in; it did not match his own experience.

Lines 6-16

The next two stanzas repeat the same pattern. In a four-line stanza, the speaker expresses the desire that America should live up to its dreams; it should allow love to flourish and never sink into tyranny or permit the oppressive exercise of power by one group over another, or one person over another.

The single line that follows in parentheses repeats the notion of the previous single, set-apart line—that the America the speaker has just described has never been the America he lives in.

The America that conforms to its ideals is invoked again in the next four-line stanza. The speaker makes an appeal that America be allowed to genuinely be the land of liberty, without misguided patriotism—a land of freedom, where opportunity and equality are fully present all the time, for everyone.

Next, the speaker’s comment that follows in parentheses is expanded to two lines rather than one. The lines consist of a statement by the speaker that he has never experienced equality or freedom in America, despite the fact that America declares itself to be the home of the free.

Lines 17-50

Two questions follow, set in italics. A critical voice, not that of the speaker, asks who is speaking these words that seem to devalue America.

The speaker replies in the next four stanzas, which are longer than the previous ones. First, in a six-line stanza (a sestet) (Lines 19-24), he identifies himself with a wide range of oppressed people, including not only Black people but also poor white people, Indigenous Americans, and immigrants. All of them are beaten down by the existing power structure.

In the next stanza, which also has six lines (Lines 25-30), he identifies himself as a young man whose hopes are crushed when he is caught up in acquisitive, materialistic, capitalistic, greedy American society.

In the longer stanza after that (Lines 31-38), the speaker claims more identities. He is farmer, industrial worker, and “Negro” (Line 33), none of whom can live in freedom, given the way that American society is set up. The speaker also identifies with the unnamed masses—other unfortunate people who have been left out of the American dream. This includes the workers who, no matter how hard they tried, never managed to forge a path for themselves.

The longest stanza in the poem (Lines 39-50) now follows. The speaker continues to identify with a large range of people, in this case those who dreamed of freedom a long time ago while they still lived in the "Old World," that is, Europe. They were under the yoke of kings. Yet the dream they carried with them across the ocean was so strong that it pervades America and has made it what it is. The speaker says that he is one of those who sailed to America in those early days. He left Ireland, Poland, England, and Africa to build a land where freedom would reign.

Lines 51-69

Lest this be seen as too idealistic, a question follows, consisting of only two words, and standing by itself on the page (Line 51). The speaker is questioning whether America is really the home of the free. The question is a set up for what follows, which describes those who are definitely not free.

The response to the question is contained in the stanza that follows (Lines 52-61). The speaker claims that millions of people, including himself, are not free. He mentions the people who rely on relief programs—as happened during the Great Depression—as well as those who go on strike for better working conditions and are liable to be shot, and those who basically are paid nothing. This is in spite of all their dreams, the flying of American flags, the singing of patriotic songs, and the high hopes that characterize America. That dream is now almost gone.

In the next stanza (Lines 62-69), the speaker repeats the first line of the poem, once again imploring America to be the land that actually embodies its highest ideals, which it has never yet done. He insists that it must be a land in which everyone really is free. It must include all the people who helped to build it with their labor. The great dream must be revived.

Lines 70-86

In the next five-line stanza (Lines 70-74), the speaker says he does not care what insults he will face in calling for true freedom. He states that the people, in which he includes himself, must free themselves from those who live by exploiting them. They must take their land, America, back.

The next stanza also consists of five lines (Lines 75-79). The speaker repeats the theme that he first announced at the beginning of the poem, in Line 5. The idea of America as a land of hope and freedom never matched his own experience of it. Nevertheless, he affirms with confidence that America will live up to its ideal.

In the final stanza (Lines 80-86), the speaker returns to the notion that America must achieve in reality what it embodies in theory and hope. Out of corruption and lies, the American people must redeem everything in the vast stretch of land that is America, and truly make it America—that is, the land that lives up to and embodies its highest professed ideals.

blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text