"Hope is a choice but it defies simplicity" / Nikki Giovanni reads Langston Hughes

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Hope is a choice. It is a cognitive and emotional endeavor that fuels the will to inch forward, in a stumbling or swift motion. It is a collaboration between mind and heart -- one that has implications for both parts of the self. Consider, for example, the hope that permeated the American air in the witching hours following Osama bin Laden’s killing. It was a hope that manifested in the bodies of people singing and dancing in soirée-like scenes on the dark streets of Washington, DC, in packed baseball stadiums in Philadelphia, PA, and in many other cities and towns around the country. It was a hope that embodied thoughts (primarily about safety and security) and feelings (marked by excitement and relief.) During a water-cooler conversation the next day, a Jewish friend and colleague of mine noted disgustedly that there exists a Talmudic prohibition against the kind of celebration that was catalogued as those dancing bodies shimmied across our television screens, before landing squarely on the front pages of our newspapers. He pointed out that when Pharaoh’s armies drowned in the parting of the Red Sea, the Jews were expected be grateful for their salvation but were banned from exalting in the death of other human beings. My concerns, however, stretched beyond the religious scope of our dialogue. It wasn’t the celebration that I found perplexing. I recognized the logic (flawed or not) that drove the active demonstration of a belief in a Zion-like future devoid of the caliber of evil that Osama bin Laden had come to symbolize. What I found baffling was the accompanying naïveté, which appeared to rise, like froth, above religion, politics, race, and -- albeit to a lesser extent -- class.

Hope is a choice. But for those of us who navigate Babylon with a degree of regularity, those of us who exist on the fringes of American society -- barred from the mainstream by various –isms which are layered on top of aspects of our complex individual identities -- it defies simplicity. Hope becomes the elixir that we reach for when we are brow-beaten and weary to the bone, after we have been bushwhacked by life’s troops, again and again and yet again. But if hope is a healing potion, then for us -- for the marginalized -- cynicism is the cracked glass bottle that contains it. In our skeptical states, we remember that bin Laden is but a blip on the radar screen of terrorist activity. We scoff at related rudimentary dichotomies that pit 'goodies' against 'baddies'. We prevent a congealing of imperialistic views cloaked as patriotism -- worn by wolves in sheeps' clothing -- and resist the adoption of a singular view of a monolithic America. Most of all, however, in our perpetually cynical states, we marvel at the fleeting nature of the very hope that we rely on for sustenance.

Hope is a choice. Let those of us who are familiar with the pessimistic realities of life in this country make that decision an informed one. Let us opt to dream of a peaceful utopia, but choose to remain engaged with the desperation and despondence borne of the dystopic state in which a vast and voiceless number of us live. In the words of Langston Hughes, read by Nikki Giovanni (video and full text below), let us “Let America Be America Again.” Let us look twice before we leap with careless abandon into her sharpened tentacles, and jump into a suffocating clasp that squeezes us toward our untimely deaths.

Let America Be America Again
by Langston Hughes

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 never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

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.

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!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? 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.

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.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
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! (source)

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