In the last days before the Democratic National Convention, John Kerry and John Edwards adopted a campaign slogan: “Let America Be America Again.” They were clearly pleased by its provenance, as the first line of a poem written by black poet Langston Hughes (1902-67). At the height of his fame, Hughes was known as the “Shakespeare in Harlem.
” He also had long history as a Communist activist and virulent atheist. And this poem clearly echoes his admiration of Stalinism.
Hughes' personal history shaped him for a life of social protest. Born in deeply racist Joplin, Missouri, in 1902, he produced a distinctly black and proletarian protest poetry. At first, Hughes believed that assimilation would solve the Negro's problems and was an engaged participant in the Harlem Renaissance, which held out great promise for integration through black self-expression, but this faltered in the wake of the Great Depression.With it, Hughes' optimistic hopes for racial progress faltered, too. And his hope for a socialist utopia came to the fore.
Although Hughes didn't actually join the Communist Party during this period, he nurtured a genuine love affair with the Soviet cause. Having previously published his views through Crisis, the literary organ of the NAACP, Hughes turned to New Masses, the propaganda arm of the Communist Party USA. He joined the (Marxist) John Reed Club, and took on the job as director of the pro-Communist Suitcase Theatre, where Whittaker Chambers was also involved. Hughes stayed in the Soviet Union for nearly a year; his 1956 memoir, I Wonder as I Wander, chronicles a watershed voyage he made to the Soviet Union in 1932. The volume makes clear that, like so many superficially educated Americans, Hughes allowed himself to be exploited by the Soviets, becoming another of Lenin’s literary “useful idiots.”
He was inducted into the International Union of Revolutionary Writers and wrote passionate odes to Communism. As history rolled forward, Hughes seems to have vacillated between patriotism when WWII broke out and a revived attachment to Communism when Stalin emerged as an ally. During the war, Hughes served on the War Writers' Committee, writing anti-fascist poems, songs and stories, but then Hughes pivoted back to admiration socialism, calling Moscow "the world's new center."
Hughes was summoned to testify at the McCarthy hearings in 1953 but was able to convince the committee of his patriotic reinvention. Eric J. Sundquist recorded in Commentary, “Although he was a cooperative witness, his tightrope act left the distinct impression of a man who wished neither to defend nor to renounce his former beliefs but simply to set them aside, like an abandoned literary style.”
This testimony did not obscure the fact that for many years, Langston Hughes was a vocal supporter of the Communist Party, and proud of it.
The poem John Kerry selected as his campaign slogan clearly reflects Hughes' years as an anti-American Marxist. “Let America Be America Again” is hardly a patriotic salute to this great nation but rather a stark portrait of an Evil Empire:
His antipathy to the United States is echoed in the poem's refrain, “It never was America to me.”
"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...."
In another verse, Hughes mocks America's designation as "The Land of the Free":
"Who said 'the free'?...
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."
As the verses unfold, it becomes clear that Hughes is evangelizing for his radical faith:
"From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,
"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!"
When Hughes says "We, the people,” he does not use the phrase in the same sense that the Founding Fathers did in the Constitution, but rather the way Marx, Lenin and Trotsky employed it: the revolutionary Vanguard of the coming socialist State.
In his retrospective of Hughes' work, Sundquist cited “Let America be America again” as poetically “embarrassing.” However, it was another pro-Marxist poem -- "Goodbye Christ" -- that would inspire the FBI to launch a probe into Langston Hughes' activities. In the poem, Hughes presents the Church ceding power to its Leninist vanquishers. "Goodbye, Christ" reads, in part:
You did alright in your day, I reckon -
But that day's gone now.
They ghosted you up a swell story, too,
Called it Bible -
But it's dead now.
Christ Jesus, Lord God Jehovah,
Beat it on away from here now.
Make way for a new guy with no religion at all -
A real guy named
Marx, Communist Lenin, Peasant Stalin, Worker ME."
Clearly, the fact that John Kerry and John Edwards have allowed the tenor of their presidential campaign to be set by a propaganda poem written by a well-known Stalinist is troubling. However, this is not the first time the campaign has borrowed from avowed Marxists. John Edwards' “Two Americas” stump shtick echoes earlier American socialist propaganda. In the words of a typical Edwards stump speech:
“Today under George W. Bush, there are two Americas, not one. One America does the work, while another America reaps the reward. One America pays the taxes, while another America gets the tax breaks.”
We can imagine that Edwards might very well find much to admire in Hughes words, “the millions on relief,” and “the millions who have nothing for our pay.”
Yet Edwards’ words also find an eerie echo in the remarks of James P. Cannon, a founding member of the Trotskyist movement in the United States. During a speech at the 1948 convention of the Socialist Workers’ Party, Cannon said:
“There are two Americas – and millions of the people already distinguish between them. One is the America of the imperialists – of the little clique of capitalists, landlords and militarists, who are threatening and terrifying the world. This is the America the people of the world hate and fear. There is the other America – the America of the workers and farmers and the ‘little people.’”
Sure, the enormously wealthy Kerry and Edwards would have been hated by Hughes and Cannon, derided as the “little clique of capitalists...the people of the world hate and fear.” But the question remains: Why would the Democratic candidates continue to identify themselves with a writer like Hughes, who used his work for such vitriolically anti-American purposes? And why use the words of a revolutionary leftist like Cannon? They can’t plead ignorance, because several publications have brought the repugnant connections to their attention. They have not apologized, nor have they quietly withdrawn the quotations. Apparently, Kerry and Edwards are not ashamed to be identified with democracy’s most virulent enemies.
Far from being ashamed, in fact, Kerry has determined to appropriate the words of a dead leftist poet for his own purposes. In order to cement the association, he has gone so far as write the preface to a new release of Hughes' poetry (or have it ghostwritten for him). The volume, to be published in early August, contains "Let America be America Again." In the forward, Kerry speaks of the Great Depression which motivated many writers to look for hope in Communism and points to the "duality of meanings" in Hughes' "America" poem: America as a land that has disenfranchised the Negro but is still a beacon of hope for all people, regardless of color. But there was no duality of meaning in the poem. On the contrary, the poem was specifically written to say that America is a land whose only hope was to adopt Soviet style communism.
People are known for the company they keep. George W. Bush often quotes the Word of God. John Kerry seems remarkably comfortable in the company of Langston Hughes, Joe Cannon and, through them, with Stalin. Are these the kind of presidential companions we want to see in the Oval Office?