From Whitewater to Whitewash

In response to a request from Edith Wharton to produce a poem for her 1916 anthology, The Book of the Homeless, WB Yeats took the opportunity to issue a general put down to poets who get involved in politics. In On Being Asked For a War Poem, he advocates a policy of conscientious inaction, suggesting that “a poet’s mouth [should] be silent”, and claiming, rather bombastically, that “We have no gift to set a statesman right”. While there is scope for a charge of hypocrisy – a performance of Yeats’s nationalist play Cathleen ni Houlihan at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin was later credited with sparking the Easter Rising – Yeats’s message is clear: politics and poetry don’t mix.

John Kerry, apparently, does not agree. The presidential hopeful who yesterday gave his address to the Democratic national convention has adopted Let America Be America Again, the title of a 1938 poem by American poet Langston Hughes, as his official campaign trail slogan. What’s more, in case anyone missed the point, he has gone on to quote extensively from the poem in his campaign speeches. When announcing his choice of John Edwards as running mate at a rally in Pittsburgh, for example, he chose to round off his speech by proclaiming the association between his position and aims and those of the poet. To resounding cheers, he said:

“Langston Hughes was a poet, a black man and a poor man. And he wrote in the 1930s powerful words that apply to all of us today. He said ‘Let America be America again. Let it be the dream that it used to be for those whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, for those whose hand at the foundry – something Pittsburgh knows about – for those whose plough in the rain must bring back our mighty dream again.’ “

The Guardian on John Kerry & campaign trail poetry. Elsewhere, Slate‘s Timothy Noah is less than pleased with this adoption, saying that Kerry–in his preface to a newly published book featuring the poem–is willfully misreading and performing “a whitewash” (pun intended, you betcha) on the Stalinist vision Hughes was espousing. Here’s Kerry:

It was in that climate that Langston Hughes, Black America’s unofficial poet laureate, wrote his powerful poetic lament, “Let America Be America Again.” While it is the litany of the great promise of opportunity that has drawn so many of the world’s disaffected to our shores, the poem is also a call to make that promise real for all Americans—especially for the descendants of slaves.

Not unmindful of the duality of meanings, I was drawn to incorporate the words of the poem in my 2004 presidential campaign, because it reminds us that America is a nation always in the process of becoming, always striving to build “a more perfect union.” We must not forget that African Americans and women were written out of the Constitution before they were written in.

Now Noah:

Chatterbox applauds Kerry’s political message, but as lit crit, this is a whitewash. What “duality of meanings” is Kerry talking about? The poem has only one meaning: America’s golden promise is hooey. It’s hooey for blacks, it’s hooey for the farmer, it’s hooey for the Native Americans. It’s hooey for the entire proletariat. Time to seize the means of production!

Jeez, Noah. Trying switching to decaf or maybe looser underwear. You want to go back to the dark days of Reagan’s Born in the U.S.A.? Well?


  1. I don’t read Noah’s remarks as a rejection of the great Hughes’ message but a jibe at Kerry’s attempted sanitizing of its ferociously activist call-to-arms.

  2. Oh, I think it’s clear that that’s what Timmy’s getting at. But (1) I don’t think Kerry is ducking Hughes’ intent; (2) I have a huge problem with statements such as “The poem has only one meaning”; and (3) I think Noah’s rhetoric is crazy overheated (hence the mention of Reagan/Springsteen “collaboration,” an utter misrepresentation if ever there was one).

  3. Well, I agree with you about Noah’s fiat that the poem has only one meaning. But really, do you accept Kerry’s duality of meanings?

    Even if Noah is lampooning the poem as a Stalinist exhortation, its agitation and disallusionment with America is closer to its heart than a list of the promises.

Comments are closed.