Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be —Langston Hughes
I wake up to Langston Hughes’s insistent “Let America be America again.” A quiet refrain. It won’t let go. It won’t let me be. It insists, nags, irritates, demands. Respond in some way.
America the dream. America the beautiful dream.
I am reading about Edward Wilmot Blyden. Born in the West Indies in 1832, he tried to attend college in the U.S., but no colleges would admit him. He then moved to Liberia, completed high school, and became a leading proponent of immigration to Africa. Only in Africa, he argued, would black individuals experience their wholeness, untainted by the stunting poison of racism.
Blyden is stunningly absent from most U.S. accounts of black thinkers, sometimes appearing as a footnote, but little else. A burr. He disturbs belonging. He uncovers the subject hidden within the citizen. And more. He sees the abject that subtends the subject-turned-citizen.
He sees the America of which Hughes sings, the dream. And mourns its quiddity.
It is always dangerous to look back to an earlier period, to a time when racial discourse seemed more fraught, more urgent, to a time before our now post-racial age. It is always dangerous to go back because one always asks what has changed.
Inevitably, the answer must be: a lot, but not enough.
We have not yet crossed the borders that divide us from our dreams.
But we have crossed other borders.
Borders where the gains of the past are accounted loss. Borders where the pursuit of American safety demands foreign corpses. Borders where the American project takes precedence over the human project. Borders into states of exception. Borders in which the nightmares of silent screams have become only too real.
And borders have been erected.
To keep history away from the present. Queers away from the promise of recognition. The underemployed and unemployed from pursuing dignity, let alone happiness. To keep aliens out. To prevent many from ever achieving REM state.
Borders in harsh-sunned places where dreams turn to raisins.
It is dangerous to look to the past. Dangerous because affective sympathies can be too easily co-opted. Dangerous because I want to appropriate Douglass:
I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.
Dangerous because the African and African American distinction still carries weight: new nativisms recapitulate old ones and old prejudices extend into new time-spaces.
A too-easy use of Douglass collapses history into convenient bite-size affect packets. Audre Lorde teaches that one should not mistake hurt feelings for injustice.
Nor do overly-loud fireworks constitute injury sufficient to be named injustice.
Yet certain identifications enable recognitions of a now in which unformed stutters grasp the present’s jagged edges, seize hold of its harsh promises, and hope that blood counts for something.
What does the alien want?
As the government rushed to reassure citizens that it was not spying on them illegally, it implied that no such protections exist for aliens in the U.S., collapsing, at that moment, the distinction between legal and illegal aliens.
We are all aliens.
And the ostensible protection granted to subject-citizens, citizen-subjects, does not apply.
The promises of cosmopolitanism stop at the threshold of the alien.
Cosmopolitanism because from the vantage-point of Moi-era Kenya, the U.S. was the place of refuge, where even strangers could dream anew, recover lost tongues, rest weary souls, seek energy to fight again.
Cosmopolitanism because from the vantage-point of Moi-era Kenya, the U.S. was the direction to which we pointed our politicians, the space we felt they could learn from.
Cosmopolitanism because from the vantage-point of Moi-era Kenya, the U.S. was the place that allowed little black girls and boys to dream and dance their dreams on world stages.
Cosmopolitanism because those of us alienated from our own spaces could imagine the U.S. as a space that would alleviate that alienation, or not let it hurt quite so keenly.
Our American Dream.
It has become ever more elusive. Haunted by images of torture and whispers of secret jails. Harangued by alien-hating publics and the public servants who enforce alienation. Persecuted by the threat of ever-vigilant officials waiting to pounce on the unaware—one-minute past ticket issuers.
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be