Thursday, February 23, 2012

Freedom's Plow by Langston Hughes

This poem is a deep, warm, cleansing shower for the soul of any American who despairs for the future of the country.

This is the Langston Hughes poem that every school child in America should be made to memorize and recite. Don't get me wrong, "I, Too, Sing America" is a great poem, expressing some great thoughts and feelings in just a few words, but this poem could remove so much poison from so many people if it were read and studied by American children.

In many a dark hour, I've pondered on things this poem addresses. Some people say America is a series of Faustian bargains. The first bargain was at the beginning of the Republic, where slavery was permitted to get the southern States to join. The Founders had a lousy strategy, hoping that slavery would become unprofitable, whistling past the graveyard. Langston Hughes shows a great deal a magnanimity here in not addressing Jim Crow, the second great American Faustian bargain. Walter Russell Mead writes:

The end of Reconstruction was in effect a new great compromise like those of the Constitution, 1820 and 1850. The Compromise of 1877 not only traded the election of Rutherford Hayes for the end of military occupation in the South; it abandoned the North’s effort to ensure equality for freed slaves in the South. The South gave up slavery and dreams of re-secession; the North abandoned efforts to regulate civil rights on a national rather than a state-by-state basis.

The series of post-Civil War compromises and arrangements that culminated in the Compromise of 1877 allowed the South to disarm Blacks (many Civil War veterans), deprive them of the vote, and install a system of racial segregation guarded both by law and mob violence. The mass of southern Blacks were kept uneducated and tied to the land; a small elite managed to get access to higher education and laid the foundations of the modern Black middle class.

I say we're somewhere in the middle of the third great American Faustian bargain, where the Democratic Party trades money and favors for votes, and tells black Americans that their problems are somebody else's fault, that they're pathetic little victims who need government help. It's a massive destruction of moral capital that can only end in tears. When will it end? Like I know. It's an encouraging sign that people are more willing than ever to challenge accusations of racism. We'll know it's over when people like Al Sharpton are mocked to scorn on Saturday Night Live, instead of hosting Saturday Night Live. I take consolation from this lines of this poem that tell us we're headed toward freedom.

This poem puts the exclamation point on the series of poems by American black poets I've been putting up this month. I have some other poems by poets of other nationalities that I wish to put up here, and by putting up this poem, I declare that I have fulfilled whatever responsibility I might have to celebrate Black History Month.

I feel like I've made a contribution to America today, just by reading this poem. I will sleep well, tonight.

When a man starts out with nothing,
When a man starts out with his hands
Empty, but clean,
When a man starts to build a world,
He starts first with himself
And the faith that is in his heart-
The strength there,
The will there to build.

First in the heart is the dream-
Then the mind starts seeking a way.
His eyes look out on the world,
On the great wooded world,
On the rich soil of the world,
On the rivers of the world.

The eyes see there materials for building,
See the difficulties, too, and the obstacles.
The mind seeks a way to overcome these obstacles.
The hand seeks tools to cut the wood,
To till the soil, and harness the power of the waters.
Then the hand seeks other hands to help,
A community of hands to help-
Thus the dream becomes not one man’s dream alone,
But a community dream.
Not my dream alone, but our dream.
Not my world alone,
But your world and my world,
Belonging to all the hands who build.

A long time ago, but not too long ago,
Ships came from across the sea
Bringing the Pilgrims and prayer-makers,
Adventurers and booty seekers,
Free men and indentured servants,
Slave men and slave masters, all new-
To a new world, America!

With billowing sails the galleons came
Bringing men and dreams, women and dreams.
In little bands together,
Heart reaching out to heart,
Hand reaching out to hand,
They began to build our land.
Some were free hands
Seeking a greater freedom,
Some were indentured hands
Hoping to find their freedom,
Some were slave hands
Guarding in their hearts the seed of freedom,
But the word was there always:

Down into the earth went the plow
In the free hands and the slave hands,
In indentured hands and adventurous hands,
Turning the rich soil went the plow in many hands
That planted and harvested the food that fed
And the cotton that clothed America.
Clang against the trees went the ax into many hands
That hewed and shaped the rooftops of America.
Splash into the rivers and the seas went the boat-hulls
That moved and transported America.
Crack went the whips that drove the horses
Across the plains of America.
Free hands and slave hands,
Indentured hands, adventurous hands,
White hands and black hands
Held the plow handles,
Ax handles, hammer handles,
Launched the boats and whipped the horses
That fed and housed and moved America.
Thus together through labor,
All these hands made America.

Labor! Out of labor came villages
And the towns that grew cities.
Labor! Out of labor came the rowboats
And the sailboats and the steamboats,
Came the wagons, and the coaches,
Covered wagons, stage coaches,
Out of labor came the factories,
Came the foundries, came the railroads.
Came the marts and markets, shops and stores,
Came the mighty products moulded, manufactured,
Sold in shops, piled in warehouses,
Shipped the wide world over:
Out of labor-white hands and black hands-
Came the dream, the strength, the will,
And the way to build America.
Now it is Me here, and You there.
Now it’s Manhattan, Chicago,
Seattle, New Orleans,
Boston and El Paso-
Now it’s the U.S.A.

A long time ago, but not too long ago, a man said:
His name was Jefferson. There were slaves then,
But in their hearts the slaves believed him, too,
And silently took for granted
That what he said was also meant for them.
It was a long time ago,
But not so long ago at that, Lincoln said:
There were slaves then, too,
But in their hearts the slaves knew
What he said must be meant for every human being-
Else it had no meaning for anyone.
Then a man said:
He was a colored man who had been a slave
But had run away to freedom.
And the slaves knew
What Frederick Douglass said was true.

With John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, Negroes died.
John Brown was hung.
Before the Civil War, days were dark,
And nobody knew for sure
When freedom would triumph
"Or if it would," thought some.
But others new it had to triumph.
In those dark days of slavery,
Guarding in their hearts the seed of freedom,
The slaves made up a song:
Keep Your Hand On The Plow! Hold On!
That song meant just what it said: Hold On!
Freedom will come!
Keep Your Hand On The Plow! Hold On!
Out of war it came, bloody and terrible!
But it came!
Some there were, as always,
Who doubted that the war would end right,
That the slaves would be free,
Or that the union would stand,
But now we know how it all came out.
Out of the darkest days for people and a nation,
We know now how it came out.
There was light when the battle clouds rolled away.
There was a great wooded land,
And men united as a nation.

America is a dream.
The poet says it was promises.
The people say it is promises-that will come true.
The people do not always say things out loud,
Nor write them down on paper.
The people often hold
Great thoughts in their deepest hearts
And sometimes only blunderingly express them,
Haltingly and stumblingly say them,
And faultily put them into practice.
The people do not always understand each other.
But there is, somewhere there,
Always the trying to understand,
And the trying to say,
"You are a man. Together we are building our land."

Land created in common,
Dream nourished in common,
Keep your hand on the plow! Hold on!
If the house is not yet finished,
Don’t be discouraged, builder!
If the fight is not yet won,
Don’t be weary, soldier!
The plan and the pattern is here,
Woven from the beginning
Into the warp and woof of America:
Who said those things? Americans!
Who owns those words? America!
Who is America? You, me!
We are America!
To the enemy who would conquer us from without,
We say, NO!
To the enemy who would divide
And conquer us from within,
We say, NO!
To all the enemies of these great words:
We say, NO!

A long time ago,
An enslaved people heading toward freedom
Made up a song:
Keep Your Hand On The Plow! Hold On!
The plow plowed a new furrow
Across the field of history.
Into that furrow the freedom seed was dropped.
From that seed a tree grew, is growing, will ever grow.
That tree is for everybody,
For all America, for all the world.
May its branches spread and shelter grow
Until all races and all peoples know its shade.

This poem can be found in a number of Langston Hughes poetry books, including The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes.

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What's Going On Here?

Pretty much what the tagline says. I'm reciting poems I like, and making mashups of poems I like with the music for which my ear hungers when I read and think of these poems. It is my sincere hope that other lovers of these poems will do likewise.