I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!”
— Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”
What old men know is that everything can change. Langston Hughes wrote these lines when I was 8 years old, in the very different America of 1935.
It was an America where the life of a black person didn’t count for much. Where women were still second-class citizens, where Jews and other ethnic whites were looked on with suspicion, and immigrants were kept out almost completely unless they came from certain approved countries in Northern Europe. Where gay people dared not speak the name of their love, and where “passing” — as white, as a WASP, as heterosexual, as something, anything else that fit in with what America was supposed to be — was a commonplace, with all of the self-abasement and the shame that entailed.
It was an America still ruled, at its base, by violence. Where lynchings, and especially the threat of lynchings, were used to keep minorities away from the ballot box and in their place. Where companies amassed arsenals of weapons for goons to use against their own employees and recruited the police and National Guardsmen to help them if these private corporate armies proved insufficient. Where destitute veterans of World War I were driven from the streets of Washington with tear gas and bayonets, after they went to our nation’s capital to ask for the money they were owed.
Much of that was how America had always been. We changed it, many of us, through some of the proudest struggles of our history. It wasn’t easy, and sometimes it wasn’t pretty, but we did it, together.
Reprinted by permission.
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