Lawrence Public Library has been a steadfast supporter of our local writing talent, so much so that we’re curating a local author section. Given this, and April being National Poetry Month, it felt synergistic to check in with Eric McHenry, Poet Laureate of Kansas. In 2015, we asked McHenry five questions, and with the release of his new collection,Odd Evening, it felt time to ask him five more. Read More..
Last December, still in a post election funk (that has yet to dissipate) and shifting books, I stumbled across an illustrated copy of a Langston Hughes poem, Let America be America Again. The poem’s title seemed to riff on a now distant campaign slogan (I never imagined I’d miss the 2016 campaign), and it caught my eye.
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.”)
No matter your race, party, or creed, the words “America never was America to me” should bother you. They should sting. How many “me[’s]” are represented in that one devastating sentence? What a travesty that words written in 1935 can still ring true for so many today.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the day I was spit on for not being white. I was in the seventh grade. As I got off the school bus and it started to pull away, I heard someone hock a loogie above me. Then I was covered in spit. My fellow bus riders were pointing at me and laughing. Two kids I barely knew (the culprits, I assume) were proudly sticking their torsos out of bus windows. One shouted “rice picker” as the bus pulled away. I stood there stunned. I wiped the gunk from my face and hair. Home was a couple blocks away.
A ridiculous racial epithet that followed me from middle school until I graduated. Just thinking about it makes me feel incredulous. Some days I laugh at the small-mindedness of it all. At the time it only hurt. I felt embarrassed to be myself. I felt unwelcome.
That was my first experience with America being less than what I had been taught.
I know that in the face of this country’s history of racial injustice my exposure to prejudice doesn’t amount to a drop in the bucket. It doesn’t compare to the myriad struggles that countless Americans have confronted or the disenfranchisement that millions of fellow citizens are made to feel daily.
Let America be America Again is deeply rooted in that anguish. It is a heartbreaking poem that doesn’t shy away from the exploitative capitalism and institutional racism its author faced. But at the same time it is an inspiring and defiantly hopeful work of literature. Hughes didn’t retreat. He didn’t cower. He recognized his self worth and and waited for a day when his homeland would do the same:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Let’s go back to the beginning. Not to the historical America of 1776 or to some idyllic America that never existed for the majority of us. Let’s go back to the American promise. The American Dream. Back to the city upon a hill. Back to “All men are created equal.” Back to the country that not only welcomed “the homeless, tempest-tossed” but demanded to be given “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” Let’s go back to the beginning and refamiliarize ourselves with those lofty, worthy, admirable ideals. Forget about some nativist, exclusive, reactionary idea of greatness. Let America be herself. Set fear aside, listen to our better angels, “and make America again!”
-Ian Stepp is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.
Cover Image credit: Jack Delano
See over 12 feet of amazing poets in action!
On Thursday, December 15 at 7 PM in the Auditorium, join our Kansas Poet Laureate, Eric McHenry, and Lunchbox Podcast host and poet, Ed Skoog to hear about the craft of poetry and Ed’s newest collection, Run the Red Lights.
MON | Dec 5 | 7 PM | Auditorium
A free and open evening of poetry and art to honor 15 years of the Douglas County Correction Facility’s writing program. Poet Brian Daldorph will speak and read selections from the poems that have emerged over the last 15 years in classes he has led within the prison walls. He will be joined by poet and former student Antonio Sanchez-Day as well as writer Mike Hartnett. The evening includes a chance to view three original works of art created by Norman Akers, Lora Jost and Jen Unekis based on prison poems from the project. Co-sponsored by Lawrence Magazine and Lawrence Public Library with cooperation of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.
Lawrence has a vibrant, diverse literary heritage. Read on to discover notable writers connected to Lawrence and learn about local author events. If you aspire to write and share your own writing, local opportunities are included as well. Whether you’re a reader or writer, there’s useful information for everyone. Read More..
Last weekend, my in-laws visited from Iowa. Don’t worry– this isn’t a horror story. Or a rant. I actually enjoy it when they’re in town, because I get to show them around Lawrence and brag about all the great locally-owned businesses and the neat events that happen in the community. It reminds me how much I love Lawrence and how glad I am to live here. Read More..
“April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.”
These are the heralded opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” and words I oft revisit as Mother Nature makes the shift from the dreck of Winter into Spring awakening. At the very least, Eliot is frighteningly accurate about April being the cruelest month in regard to the weather conditions in Kansas. Or, perhaps, he would have altered his word choice if he had been privy to the information that April is National Poetry Month. The world will never know. Read More..
Roses are red
Violets are blue
I like nutritious foods
And so should you.
- A poem by seventh graders Mykynzie Wright, Hailey Coon, and Rylie Stellwagon from Food Poetry by Topher Enneking & South Middle School Students
Did you know that April at LPL is both Healthy Food and Poetry month? I’m not kidding. We are lucky enough to celebrate in one month fuel for both body and soul. In fact, the poetry of food is ubiquitous, transcending time, space, culture, socio-economics, and more. Food is one of those universal connections that we have with every single living being on the planet. No wonder so many authors have chosen to write the lyrical praises of that which nourishes us all. Read More..
There has been a lot going in the sports-sphere around Lawrence recently, with each team telling its own kind of story. We have the triumph and catharsis of the Royals taking the World Series, where they faltered just a year ago; at KU, the football season, with its faint glimmers of potential, still marches on, seemingly as an examination of struggle.
Meanwhile, at Allen Fieldhouse, the basketball squad is just beginning their year with the energy and promise we’ve come to expect every November. Read More..
Language lovers of all ages are in for a treat this Thursday night: Eric McHenry, the current Kansas Poet Laureate, will be speaking at a special free event in the library auditorium at 7:00 pm. Read More..