O, let America be America again – The land that never has been yet – And yet must be – the land where every man is free
– Langston Hughes, 1935.
I can't get Langston Hughes out of my head these days.
Perhaps better than any other poet, Hughes nails the bittersweet tension between the hope that is America's dream and the reality that is America's history.
Very matter of fact, America is a sovereign nation with defined borders that officially began in 1776.
But who we imagine our nation to be and who is included in that picture, well that is much murkier water.
While campaigning in North Carolina, Sarah Palin lauded our small towns as “the real America.” Robin Hayes will be remembered for his line, “Liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God.”
To so many, the “real” America is white, conservative, small town, able-bodied, middle-class, Christian, and heterosexual. Sure there are other people in our country, but they are somehow less genuine, the argument is subtly made. Joe the Plumber is the real America, right?
As the media informed us, Joe the Plumber is a myth, as is this concept of America.
It was not that Hayes' or Palin's comments were new: campaigns have been built on this concept of America for decades. But with Barack Obama's historic candidacy, the racism and elitism inherent in this narrow vision of America gained a greater backlash.
New voters, largely those who do not fit into Palin's or Hayes' “real America” registered and turned out in large numbers. Many of those who do fit into the stereotype were so fed up with the current state of America, that they also were moved by Obama's promises for “change.”
On election night, over 125,000 gathered in Grant Park and the nation got a good look at the increasing diversity of America: all races, ages, and income levels were gathered, celebrating their work towards the common goal of electing Obama as the next president.
They were not just celebrating Obama the man, however. They were also celebrating the dream of America that Obama's words and story embody. It is the same dream that Langston Hughes wrote of – the America that has never been and yet must be – the dream of opportunity and equity, of respect and justice.
In some ways, this campaign made this dream seem even more fleeting. All facets of racist comments were made by voters questioning Obama's candidacy. Any concern for the poor was muted during the campaign, with the focus solely on the middle class. Anti-Muslim comments, sometimes subtle and sometimes blunt, were made on all sides.
And yet, as I watched history being made and Obama take the stage promising to work towards unity, I couldn't help but think of Langston Hughes and feel a bit of hope for a more inclusive vision of America:
You and I,
Seeking the stars.
You and I,
You of the blue eyes
And the blond hair,
I of the dark eyes
And the crinkly hair.
You and I