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 has never been America to me.)
My general rule is to give my students a few extra minutes to reread the poem we’re studying. I tell them, Third time’s a charm. It’s the first poem we’ve studied to cover the Regents testing and I know, just by the dense silence engulfing the room like a thick blanket, that they are deep in literal and figurative misery.
I’ve always asked them to be present when trying to tackle poetry, but the day is surely a trying one. The nearby windows are open and the sound of the city enjoying its newly minted 90-degree weather calls to them from the space between the frame. I can’t blame them for checking out. Still, I have a job to do.
I was supposed to be a Marine. When I was their age—when I was sitting right where they are sitting, slaving over the differences between assonance and anaphora and alliteration and not giving a damn about all three—I knew that I wanted to fight for this country. I looked just like them: their faces scrunched up, trying to read the board but mostly just attempting to stay awake. I knew the places I wanted to be and the places that I absolutely hated. I had my life figured out at seventeen, too.
We take a pass through the first line.
Let America be America again.
One boy raises his hand and points out that it sounds just like that slogan, the one printed on the red hats with white lettering. Sure, I tell him, but does it mean the same thing?
My students can tell that this is a question wrapped in thorns. As a result, their eyes snap away from mine as everyone shrinks in their wooden seats.
It’s odd to trace my journey to this place in time. Joining the Cadet Corps at seven years old, and later a Junior ROTC unit, was supposed to punch my ticket for my future. When you start that early, it’s like your destiny is already written for you. Now it’s a story I tell. For ten years, I stood out as the kid on my block destined to enlist and be shipped off. For ten years, I had only one destiny in life. But then I started writing, and writing led me to a way of looking at my life that I never knew possible. As a young boy from the Bronx—the child of parents who came to this country hoping for a better life—I realized that I had a responsibility here. There were stories on these blocks, but they were guarded by those that felt lesser than. There weren’t too many teachers in my life that reminded me of my voice. While I knew that there were “jarheads” that would take my place in formation, I doubted there were enough people to fill the roles of teachers in my community. So this is why, several years (and several degrees) later, I find myself in front of a classroom instead of a battalion.
I take off my glasses and use the back of my hand to clear the sweat trapped on the bridge of my nose. It’s been a long day for all of us, but I’m not even close to giving up. I call on a few students to read, but the pace feels like a trek through sand. To them the stanzas must clutter up their desks like weeds, because a few back away in defeat. I straighten my spine and tap my glasses back into place. Like running, teaching takes stamina and I’ve built up mine over the years.
In those early morning runs with my platoon—the ones that started under the stars and ended with the sun creaking over the horizon—we tried our damned best to hold our squads in formation. It’s around the thirty-minute mark that you hit the “wall”—when your boots seem filled with concrete; when the joints in your knees buckle under the weight of each step. Always when you start one of those runs, you are aware of the self. The boots falling in synchronized step, the rasping of breaths: you feel part of a larger whole. But when the “wall” comes, it becomes an amalgamation of pain and suffering. The weak-willed focus on self-preservation. Everyone else knows that you don’t leave people behind. And we run until the sun greets us. We run until it’s time for “Reveille” to start the new day.
I’m waiting for someone to step up and get the others back on pace. Luckily, one of my sharp-witted girls raises her hand and points to the next section. Her voice becomes the new cadence after my own.
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.
“Hughes wants the America of our forefathers. He wants it to go back to where they had liberty and hope and religious freedom.”
When I teach, I stand at attention. My heels are together and the points of my feet are open at a 45-degree angle. This is the imprint the Corps has left on me, but like ink, one that never settled too deep. While I typically have one hand behind my back, my shoulders squared, and my chin pointed towards whomever is speaking, my other hand is usually dangling on the lip of my pants pocket. I’m also usually chewing gum. Honestly, if my drill sergeant could see me now…
The girl examines my posture. While she’s on the right track, she can tell that she’s missed something.
I point to the word everyone has skipped over. Dream.
Of the twenty-five students in the classroom, five are Muslim, ten are African-American, one was born in Haiti and another in Jamaica; they are the children of parents who speak Punjabi and Spanish. Most will be first-generation college students, and all of them will be voting in the next election. These are the children of parents who came here based on the dream that’s hiding in plain sight within this poem. When I speak to them, they tell me stories of their sacrifices, their struggles, in coming to this country. Some of these students know what it feels like to be homeless. Some of them know how and where the American dream ends.
I go on the board and underline the passage. Hughes is calling for America to be the place people have dreamed of, I tell them. America has been a land of promise for hundreds of years. It serves as one today. And in the 1960s, when Hughes was seeing the effect of that dream on the streets and across the landscape of Harlem, what does he say next?
(America has never been America to me.)
I can tell—there’s a change in the room. There is a pulse now running through the floor, the walls. This rouses a few bodies as they twist their backs and roll their shoulders to get the blood pumping. One boy is biting on his pen so intently as he thinks that there are indents around the label when he takes it out if his mouth.
I go back to the image of those runs in my platoon. In my head, the boots are rising and falling. The light sound of belt buckles clipping buttons and heavy breaths are beginning to melt into one sound. Some are breaking through the wall, but not all.
Another girl raises her hand.
“It’s in parenthesis so maybe it represents what is being left unsaid.”
“Hughes sees an unbalance.”
I take two fingers and make circles in the air like a squad leader signaling his fire team forward. We’re almost there. Keep up.
“Hughes writes it like an aside,” the pen-munching boy says finally. It comes out like a gasp. Like this run is about to swallow him up. “He’s saying this like… he’s doesn’t feel like he can be heard.”
“The parenthesis can represent the voices—those voices that can’t be heard. Hughes is probably saying that America was a land of hope to many, but for black people, America was never a dream.”
I can feel a turn in the mood as this thought seems to light the air around us on fire. Backs are straighter in seats. Twenty-five minds are now open to my next words. It’s taken us ten minutes to fully dissect five lines of poetry, but I’m patient. Nothing ever comes without some work. We are now running as a unit. This is how we begin.
I never became the soldier fighting on the frontlines for my country. I never bled for her the way I planned to and yet I found a way to ensure her safety. When you pick up a pen instead of a rifle, you’re fighting an entirely different battle. This is my duty. This is my patriotism.
Rumpus original art by Megan Goh.