Julia Griffin / January 7, 2021

O, let America be America again

Like any traumatic or momentous event, what transpired on January 6, 2021 will affect each of us differently over time. You may have felt devastated.

Or you may have shrugged yesterday and thought, “yeah, not surprised.”

You may have done your homework or you may not.

And you may feel differently as the days move on.

I’ve found myself thinking a lot in the last hours about this: Who feels, and is treated, like a member in our country, and who feels and is treated like a guest? Whose country is it and who gets to pick the next president? 

I majored in Political Theory, and I taught American Studies for many years. What I have learned in my studies, and many in our community have learned not just in books, but through experience, is that in its history, America has never been owned equally by all its citizens.

As a White person, I’ve never been made to feel that this was someone else’s country. I’ve received messages from society that it was mine — governed by white men and made for people who look like me.

Few Black Americans and other Americans of color can make the same claim.

Yesterday put that sense of ownership and entitlement on display as rioters roamed the halls of the Capitol for hours, causing damage to property and taking pictures in Congresspeople’s offices before being sent home.

As photos like these ones make clear, privilege and advantage walked the halls of Congress on January 6, 2021 in ways that simply cannot be denied.

Langston Hughes, a celebrated Black poet of the Harlem Renaissance who went to high school in Cleveland, grapples with this fundamental injustice in his poem “Let America be America Again,” which opens: 

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.)

Later in the poem, after unpacking historical inequities due to race, class, and national origin, Hughes returns to the idea of what can be, writing:

O, let America be America again—The land that never has been yet—

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

As young people, the Mastery School’s students — their voices and their values — are needed in response to this moment in our history. We’re going to need their to help make this country and this community the one we all want to live in.

Because, whether we are speaking about America, or the Mastery School community, the answer has to be that it belongs to all of us.