The Apostrophe Blog
Photo by John Laurence
At the Table When Company Comes
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.
It has been an extraordinary few days. November 4, 2008, just after 11 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, barely the dinner hour for those of us who live in the Pacific Northwest, Barack Obama was declared the 44th President of the United States.
The day after, Wednesday, November 5th, was like a waking dream. For me and for everyone I talked and wrote to, celebrated and cried with. We were all moved that something long hoped for, had finally, peacefully and graciously, come to pass: this country of the people, by the people, and for the people electing the best-qualified candidate to the Presidency in spite of—I’d like to also think without regard to—the color of his skin.
Seventy years ago, Langston Hughes wrote “Let America Be America Again,” his lamentation to the unmet promise of this country. I turned to it today and discovered near-prophecy in these stanzas about the world so many American citizens still inhabit in this first decade of the 21st century:
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.
How do the French say it? Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
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!
In 1938 when Hughes wrote those words, the United States was still reeling from the woes of the Great Depression and fear and trembling seemed to be the order of the day. Sound familiar? The House Un-American Activities Committee had just begun began its first of far too many sessions. When Orson Welles broadcast his radio play of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, it caused a nationwide panic. On the other side of the Atlantic, Hitler and the Nazi Party had seized power. On November 9 and 10, 1938, after nearly six years of discrimination and persecution of Germany’s Jewish population, 92 Jews were murdered and close to 30,000 arrested and deported to concentration camps in a pogrom that came to be known as Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass. World War II began the following year.
The life of Langston Hughes shares many things in common with our new President-elect. He was born in Missouri, raised in Kansas and Illinois. His parents divorced when he was young and Langston was raised mainly by his paternal grandmother after his father left to live in Cuba and later Mexico. He went to Columbia University for a year. After a bit of world travel, he finally settled in New York City, where he lived and made his art—poetry, fiction, plays, and essays—in Harlem, one of the original members of a creative community that would come to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. In his work, he sought objectivity about his race at the same time that he championed the daily life and art of every African-American.
For many of us, the past eight years have been a difficult and shameful time to be an American. And yet, I feel—as do many people in the country this week—as if something, at long last, has shifted, has begun to change. Barely fifty-three years ago, on December 1, 1955, in the very much segregated Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to obey a bus driver’s order that she give up her seat for a white passenger and the Montgomery bus boycott began. I was born five days later. My entire life has been lived in the shadow of the promise of the civil rights movement, witness to a steady series of hard-fought, often painful victories, step by plodding step, every one necessary on the path to this week’s momentous and historic event. How far we have come and not a second too soon.
Which brings me back to Langston Hughes and these lines from “I, Too, Sing America,” published in his first collection of poetry, The Weary Blues, in 1926 when when he was twenty-four years old:
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
And he continues:
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
I, too, am America.
It’s finally tomorrow, company has come, we are all at the table, all of us singing, all of us America.
About the photograph: The Civil Rights Memorial1, Southern Poverty Law Center, Montgomery, Alabama. Designed by Maya Lin2. We visited it a few years back on a trip that included travelling (in reverse) what is now the National Voting Rights Historic Trail3 from Selma to Montgomery. This photo is from that revelatory trip which also included the National Civil Rights Museum4 in Memphis, Tennessee. That museum is joined to and adjacent to the Lorraine Motel, site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968.
The memorial, designed by Maya Lin, has the words in the title of my poem carved into its black granite face. It turns out the quote is actually from Amos 5:24 but, on the memorial, are wrongly attributed to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.