Let America be America again

James Mercer Langston Hughes (1902-1967) is best known as a social activist, poet, playwright, and children's book writer. He was an extremely influential figure during the Harlem Renaissance and served as a collective voice for the African-American populace during a time of extreme social and political upheaval. 

Get started Sign up for free
Let America be America again Let America be America again

Create learning materials about Let America be America again with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account

Millions of flashcards designed to help you ace your studies

Sign up for free

Convert documents into flashcards for free with AI!

Table of contents

    His poem "Let America Be America Again" (1936) was written during the Great Depression. It is an eloquently written piece that reminds readers of the progress needed to achieve the vision that is America. Although written almost 100 years ago, "Let America Be America Again" retains its relevancy and has a timeless message for today's audience.

    Let America Be America Again, Langston Hughes photo, StudySmarterFig. 1 - James Mercer Langston Hughes wrote "Let America Be America Again" and served as a voice for the African-American community during a time of racial oppression, segregation, and discrimination.

    The Harlem Renaissance was an early 20th-century movement in America that began in Harlem, New York. During this time, writers, musicians, and artists of color celebrated, explored, and defined what it meant to be African-American. It was a time that celebrated African-American culture and art. The Harlem Renaissance began after World War I and ended with the Great Depression.

    "Let America Be America Again" at a Glance

    When learning about a poem, it is best to have a general overview of the individual components.

    Poem"Let America Be America Again"
    WriterLangston Hughes
    Structurevaried stanzas, no set pattern
    Rhymefree verse
    ToneNostalgia, disappointment, anger, indignation, hope
    Literary devicesEnjambment, alliteration, metaphor, refrain
    Themeinequality, the breakdown of the American Dream

    "Let America be America Again" Summary

    "Let America Be America Again" uses first-person point of view where the speaker serves as a voice for all the under-represented racial, ethnic, and socio-economic groups in American society. The poetic voice catalogs the poor white class, African-Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants. By doing so, the speaker creates an atmosphere of inclusion within the poem, highlighting the exclusion felt by these minority groups within American culture.

    The first-person point of view is narration using the pronouns "I," "me," and "we." The narrative voice is often part of the action and shares its unique perspective with the reader. What the reader knows and experiences is filtered through the narrator's perspective.

    The poetic voice expresses the perspective of the minority groups who have worked tirelessly to achieve the American Dream, only to discover it is unattainable for them. Their work and contributions have been instrumental in America becoming a land of opportunity and have helped other members of American society thrive. However, the speaker notes the American dream is reserved for others and refers to them as "leeches" (line 66) who live off the sweat, labor, and blood of others.

    Ending in a sort of call to action, the speaker expresses a sense of urgency to "take back" (line 67) the American land and make "America again" (line 81).

    The American Dream is a nationally held belief that life in America provides individuals the fair opportunity to pursue their dreams and earn a successful living. The dream is an ideal grounded in the belief that freedom is a basic part of American life for all individuals. People of all races, genders, ethnicities, and immigrants can achieve upward social mobility and economic wealth with hard work and few barriers.

    Let America Be America Again, Statue of Liberty, StudySmarterFig. 2 - For many, the Statue of Liberty represents the American Dream.

    "Let America be America Again" Structure

    Langston Hughes uses traditional forms of poetry and marries them with the more relaxed and folk style. Hughes divided the over 80-line poem into stanzas of varying lengths. The shortest stanza is one line long, and the longest is 12 lines. Hughes also places some lines in parentheses and uses italics to add depth and emotion to the verse.

    A stanza is a set of lines grouped together visually on the page.

    Although no unifying rhyme scheme is repeated throughout the entire poem, Hughes includes some rhyme schemes in specific stanzas and sections of the poem. Near rhyme, also known as slant or imperfect rhyme, gives the poem a sense of unity and creates a constant beat. While the poem begins with a consistent rhyme scheme in the first three quatrains, Hughes abandons the patterned rhyme scheme as the poem progresses. This stylistic change mirrors the idea that America has abandoned the American Dream for the members of society who Hughes feels have contributed most to America's success.

    A quatrain is a stanza comprising four grouped lines of verse.

    A rhyme scheme is a pattern of rhyme (usually end rhyme) established in a poem.

    Near rhyme, also known as imperfect slant rhyme, is when either the vowel sound or consonant sounds in words near each other share similar sounds but are not exact.

    "Let America be America Again" Tone

    The overall tone in "Let America Be America Again" is angry and indignant. However, several poetic shifts in the poem lead to the concluding anger expressed and show the evolution of the rage in response to the social conditions in America.

    The speaker begins by expressing a nostalgic and longing tone for an image of America that was a "great strong land of love" (line 7). This basic belief that America is built upon is further expressed using references to the "pioneer on the plain" (line 3) where "opportunity is real" (line 13).

    Hughes then uses parentheses to show the tone shift to a sense of disappointment. The speaker has been excluded from the foundational idea that anyone can achieve success with hard work. By directly stating America "never was America to me" as parenthetical information, the speaker shows a literal separation of words and ideas within the poem. The separate ideas mirror the segregation and racial discrimination much of America experienced in 1935 when Hughes wrote the poem.

    At a time of political and social upheaval, American society was suffering from the Great Depression when the market crashed in 1929. While the affluent Americans were largely unaffected by the circumstances, the poor and working-class Americans were barely surviving and on government relief.

    After posing two rhetorical questions in italics, the tone again shifts.

    A rhetorical question is a question asked intending to make a point rather than eliciting an answer.

    Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

    (lines 17-18)

    The italicized questions emphasize the importance of the catalog of individuals that follows. The now angry tone is expressed through the detailed descriptions of each society member listed and in the diction Hughes implements. The speaker states how the different members, representative of entire groups, have been wronged in America.

    These individuals are the "white poor" that have been "pushed apart" (line 19), the "red man" who was "driven from the land" (line 21), the "Negro" who bears "slavery's scars" (line 20), and the "immigrant" who is left "clutching the hope" (line 22) have fallen victim to the American Dream. Rather, these poor and minorities within society struggle through the "same old stupid plan" (line 23) in America. Highly critical of America's societal structure and the lack of opportunity for many individuals, Hughes uses diction like "stupid" (line 23), "crush" (line 24), "tangled" (line 26), and "greed" (line 30) to express a sense of disillusion and defeat.

    Diction is the specific word choice selected by the writer to create mood and tone and communicate an attitude toward a subject.

    The speaker expresses the irony of the situation. The same people who work tirelessly in pursuit of success and the acquisition of the dream are the ones who least benefit from it. Hughes expresses the final tone of indignation through a series of sarcastic rhetorical questions.

    The free?

    Who said the free? Not me?Surely not me? The millions on relief today?The millions shot down when we strike?The millions who have nothing for our pay?

    (lines 51-55)

    The questions read as an interrogation, challenging the reader to consider the obvious truth and injustice. The social groups mentioned in the poem have paid for their dreams with labor, sweat, tears, and blood, only to find a "dream that's almost dead" (line 76).

    Concluding with a sense of hope, the poetic voice swears an "oath" (line 72) to help America and "redeem" the notion of the American Dream, making America "America again" (line 81).

    Fun fact: Hughes's father wanted him to become an engineer and paid for his tuition to attend Columbia. Hughes left after his first year and traveled the world by ship. He took odd jobs to make a living. He taught English in Mexico, was a nightclub cook, and worked as a waiter in Paris.

    "Let America be America Again" Literary Devices

    Besides the structure and key diction choices, Hughes utilizes central literary devices to convey themes of inequality and the breakdown of the American Dream.


    Langston Hughes uses refrains throughout the poem to enhance the meaning by showing consistency in the ideas, giving the poem a cohesive feeling, and revealing the issue in American culture and with the American Dream.

    (America never was America to me.)

    (Line 5)

    The refrain in line 5 first appears in parentheses. The speaker notes the idea that America is a land of opportunity. However, the speaker and other minority groups have a different experience. The line, or a variation of it, is repeated three times throughout the poem. The last instance of refrain for this statement is in line 80, where it is now central to the message and no longer set aside in parentheses. The speaker vows to reclaim America and to help America become the land of opportunity for all.

    A refrain is a word, line, part of a line, or group of lines repeated in the course of a poem, often with slight changes.


    Hughes uses alliteration to draw attention to ideas and emphatically express an emotion. The repeated hard "g" sound in "gain," "grab," "gold," and "greed" highlight the voracity with which people search for riches only to satisfy their own selfishness. Hughes is showing the imbalance between those that need and those that have. The hard "g" sound is aggressive, audibly reflecting the aggression the oppressed individuals in society feel.

    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!

    (lines 27-30)

    Alliteration is the repetition of a consonant sound at the beginning of words close to each other when reading,

    What other instances of alliteration have you identified in the poem which help the poet convey his message? How?


    Enjambment leaves an idea incomplete and forces the reader over to the next line to find a syntactical completion. This technique is best demonstrated in the following example.

    For all the dreams we’ve dreamedAnd all the songs we’ve sungAnd all the hopes we’ve heldAnd all the flags we’ve hung,

    (lines 54-57)

    The speaker expresses the hopes, patriotism, and aspirations that have yet to be realized. Hughes uses the form to emulate the situation and conditions within society, where many individuals didn't have equal opportunities and were left waiting for fair treatment.

    Enjambment is when a line of poetry continues into the next without the use of punctuation.

    Let America Be America Again, American flag, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The American Flag represents freedom and unity. However, the speaker and the socio-economic groups mentioned in the poem don't experience the same opportunities.


    Hughes uses metaphor in "Let America Be America Again" to show how the search for the American Dream has disproportionately trapped some individuals.

    I am the young man, full of strength and hope,Tangled in that ancient endless chainOf profit, power, gain, of grab the land!

    (lines 25-27)

    This metaphor compares the speaker's situation in America to a tangled chain. Manipulated by the system meant to provide an opportunity for advancement, the speaker sees no escape from the "endless chain" (line 26). Rather, the search for "profit" and "power" keeps him shackled.

    A metaphor is a figure of speech that offers a direct comparison between two unlike objects not using the words "like" or "as." One object is often concrete and represents the traits or characteristics of a more abstract idea, emotion, or concept.

    "Let America be America Again" Theme

    Although Hughes explores several themes in "Let America Be America Again," the two main ideas are inequality and the breakdown of the American Dream.


    Langston Hughes expressed the inequality present in American society during the time he was writing. Hughes saw the conditions African-Americans suffered during the Great Depression. In a segregated society, African-Americans worked the hardest jobs for the lowest pay. When individuals were laid off, African-Americans were the first to lose their jobs. In public assistance and relief programs, they often received less than their white American counterparts.

    Hughes notes this disparity in his poem, stating minorities find "the same old stupid plan / Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak." Not satisfied with the status quo, Hughes ends the poem with a kind of call to action, stating, "We, the people, must redeem / The land" (line 77).

    Breakdown of the American Dream

    Within the poem, Hughes grapples with the reality that the American Dream and the "land of opportunity" have excluded the very people who worked hard to make the land what it is. The speaker states

    The land that never has been yet—And yet must be—the land where every man is free.The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—Who made America

    (lines 55-58)

    Yet, these minorities mentioned still face a "dream that's almost dead" (line 76 ) in Hughes's time. The dream, which promises prosperity to those willing to work for it, left the speaker and the millions of minority Americans "humble, hungry, mean" (line 34) despite working so hard.

    Let America be America again - Key takeaways

    • "Let America Be America Again" is a poem by Langston Hughes.
    • The poem "Let America Be America Again" was written in 1935 and published in 1936 during the Great Depression.
    • "Let America Be America Again" explores issues of inequity and the breakdown of the American Dream for minority groups in America.
    • Hughes uses literary devices such as alliteration, refrain, metaphor, and enjambment in "Let America Be America Again."
    • Although the tone fluctuates a few times during "Let America Be America Again," the overall tone is one of indignation and anger.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Let America be America again

    Who wrote "Let America Be America Again"? 

    Langston Hughes wrote "Let America Be America Again."

    When was "Let America Be America Again" written? 

    "Let America Be America Again" was written in 1936 during the Great Depression. 

    What is the theme of "Let America Be America Again"?

    Themes in "Let America Be America Again" are inequality  and the breakdown of the American Dream. 

    What does "Let America Be America Again" mean?

    The meaning of "Let America Be America Again" focuses on the true meaning of the American Dream and how it has not been realized. The poem ends with a call to action to keep fighting for what America can become. 

    What is the tone of "Let America Be America Again"?

    The overall tone of the poem is anger and indignation. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    The repitition of the hard "g" sound in the following lines is an example of what? "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!"

    The lines "Tangled in that ancient endless chain / Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!" serve as an example of what figure of speech? 

    What is one literary device not used by Hughes in "Let America Be America Again"?


    Discover learning materials with the free StudySmarter app

    Sign up for free
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team English Literature Teachers

    • 13 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App
    Sign up with Email

    Get unlimited access with a free StudySmarter account.

    • Instant access to millions of learning materials.
    • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams, AI tools and more.
    • Everything you need to ace your exams.
    Second Popup Banner