'Let America Be America Again' Does Not Mean What Scott Baio Thinks It Means
One of the smartest pop songs ever written is 1994’s “Hook,” by the band Blues Traveller. The genius of “Hook” is that it’s an insipid, meaningless pop-song about how insipid and meaningless pop music is. It used the basic structure of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” the same structure frequently used in hit pop songs, to replicate their success and easy-to-understand lyrics that no one paid any attention to.
It doesn’t matter what I say
So long as I sing with inflection
That makes you feel I’ll convey
Some inner truth or vast reflection
But I’ve said nothing so far
And I can keep it up for as long as it takes
It’s a brilliantly written song disguised as radio-friendly fluff, and it had a remarkable affinity for worming itself inside the listener’s brain and camping out for days, just as it was designed to do. Most people, however, never put together that it was a satire. I didn’t either until I read Emily Guendelsberger’s amazing long-form piece on the song for the AV Club four years ago. It’s mind-blowing.
Meta-fiction wasn’t as popular back in 1938 when Langston Hughes wrote the poem, “Let America be America again,” but the poem has had a similar effect. Initially, the poem seems to be about making America the land of opportunity again. It was about reviving the American dream. It was about returning America to a time when “opportunity is real, and life is free, equality is in the air we breathe.”
As the reader digs further, however, “Let America Be America again” reveals itself to be just the opposite. For people like Langston Hughes, there was never a time in America when people could achieve the American dream.
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.
“Let America be America again” was, in a way, a lot like Blues Traveler’s “Hook.” It contained a powerful political slogan that was effectively meaningless and insipid. It reflected the vacuous, emptiness of political promises to “make America great again.”
Scott Baio used that very line to cap off a speech he gave at the Republican National Convention last night.
It’s unlikely that Scott Baio understood the history of that phrase. It’s also unlikely that Rick Santorum intentionally ripped off the Langston Hughes line and used it as a slogan for his 2012 Presidential campaign. (John Kerry also used it in his 2004 Presidential campaign, although he did so intentionally.)
The irony here, of course, is that an actor most famous for playing a character in a 1970’s show set in the 1950s is calling on Republicans in 2016 to make America the country that it was in the 1950s. That 1950’s America, however, was not so different than the America Langston Hughes spoke about in 1938:
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!
Like “Hook,” however, that slogan, “Let America be America again,” has wormed its way into the brains of politicians, who have co-opted it and attempted to impute meaning to a meaningless slogan with a little inflection.
It doesn’t matter what I say So long as I sing with inflection
Baio ends speech "Make America America again," echoing a Langston Hughes poem about the bullshit of such slogans. https://t.co/0JAt0bx4Gz— René (@renalien) July 19, 2016
Unlike “Hook,” however, there is a deeper meaning to Hughes’ poem, but it doesn’t come until the end for those with attention-deficit disorder. My guess is that it’s not the meaning that Baio or Santorum desired, because in the end, Hughes calls upon black people, poor people, and immigrants to rise up and “take back our land again, America!”
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!
It’s a powerful poem about the need for the disenfranchised of America to stop buying into this “American Dream” that the powerful, greedy and “those who live like leeches on the people’s lives” are trying to sell them. For so many Americans, that dream doesn’t exist. It didn’t exist in the 1970s, the 1950s, or the 1930s, either, but politicians have been repeating that canard for decades. Why?
“Because the hook brings you back / On that you can rely.”