A Look at the Reality of the American Promise
The Reality of the American Promise
Poetry, in a cumulative sense, is an exhibitory archive containing the sum of the human experience. For example, Poetry helps us explore the most general and specific areas of humanity. Likewise, poetry can be utilized to investigate the profundities of a particular feeling. Above all, poetry helps us understand the totality of a writer’s experienced contemplation on a given subject. In regards to the “American dream” or “American promise”, Emma Lazarus and Langston Hughes express starkly different views on what America has to offer to the underprivileged. Comparing the upbringing of both authors leads to an explanation, of the differing perceptions of reality found in between, “The New Colossus”, and “Let America be America Again”. A thorough analysis of the poems themselves will tell us what exactly the authors are saying. To a certain extent, this information is useful when relating to the struggles and hardships that immigrants like Enrique face when trying to get to America. It is also useful in forming a general opinion on modern day America.
Emma Lazarus and Langston Hughes grew up on opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. The two lived very different lives. . Emma Lazarus was of European descent. Langston Hughes was an African American. . Lazarus was born into a rich family. Hughes was poor and being black didn’t help his situation in a time of racial segregation. Hughes’ father published her first series poems for her; a considerable expense at the time. It makes sense that Emma Lazarus saw America in such a positive light compared to Langston Hughes. Her view of the world was much more protected and sheltered because of the amount of money she had. This is a safe assumption to make. Lazarus was never submerged into the culture she was speaking to. Hughes, on the other hand, was born into a life of poverty. He was side by side with the poor and underprivileged that he and Lazarus both addressed. In his poem “Let America be America Again”, he was addressing his own people. Hughes’ perspective on life in America is quite negative compared to Lazarus’. When defining reality, experience is much more accurate than observation. Therefore, Hughes’ perspective is different from Lazarus’ because it is much more accurate.
Poetry is a complicated form of expression. It employs devices such as metaphor, symbol, repetition, allusion, sound, rhythm, imagery, connotation and irony. By using these devices, poets can create multiple dimensions of meaning behind every word. Due to the complexity caused by multi-layered meaning, poetry is open to misinterpretation. That is why a detailed analysis is vital to a correct interpretation of both poems.
In “Let America be America Again”, Hughes immediately introduces the fact that he believes America is not all it can be. This is because of his usage of the word “again” in the title. Hughes wants America to be “the dream it used to be”(2). He wants America to fulfill its promise: To grant him equality, freedom, and opportunities for the pursuit of happiness. Even though Hughes believes that America upheld its promises at one point, he says: “America was never America to me”(5) Hughes never actually experienced the fulfillment of the American promise.
Obviously there is an imbalance in the spread of resources, which is why Hughes never got his promised share. By using phrases like “tyrants scheme”, “kings connive”, and “man be crushed by the one above”(8-9), Hughes is trying to tell the reader that the people in power are the ones living happily, but at the same time, are depriving everyone else of opportunity. However, there isn’t just one big group of poor people.
Hughes recognizes that there are several different sub-groups of people at a disadvantage, and they all are suffering for specific reasons. For example, the “Negro bearing slavery’s scars”(20) points towards African Americans who were considered less than human and to this day are profiled and discriminated against. This is because they used to be enslaved during a period in America. Native Americans are another good example: Hughes addresses their struggle by saying that the “red man” was “driven from the land”(21). Anyone who has taken an American history class is familiar with the number of Native Americans left; approximately one-tenths of the population.
Immigrants who came to America didn’t just sit around and complain about not getting opportunities to fulfill the American Promise. They worked hard in effort to better their livelihood. For example Hughes addresses the farmers as “bondsman to the soil” (32). Likewise, he refers to the factory worker as “sold to the machine” (33). Apart from the “Negro”(34) who was once enslaved him/herself, Hughes insinuates that the lower-class worked so hard, it was as if they were enslaved to their specific professions. Regardless of their hard work, these people were still “Hungry” and “Beaten” (Hughes 36-37). The poor, disadvantaged working class were battered and bruised from years of hard work, yet they were still hungry for a better life; A life that would literally bring more food to the table.
Hughes was miserable with the current reality of American life for the lower-class. However, this did not stop him from dreaming of an ideal America. To Hughes, an ideal America was a place that is “the dream the dreamers dreamed”(6) . It was a place where the “opportunity was real”(Hughes 13), so immigrants could pursue their dreams to reality. It was also a place where there was so much equality you could smell it “in the air we breathe” (Hughes 14). For most of the duration of “Let America be America Again”, Hughes is only hoping for these ideas to become a reality. However, near the ending of the poem, he swears to his audience as a last appeal that “America will be”(Hughes 78). He assures his audience that someday, they will get an opportunity and their fulfillment of the American Promise.
“Let America Be America Again” is a much longer poem compared to “The New Colossus.” That is because there is a greater amount of relatable details that can be referred to when addressing reality than when promoting ideals. In “The New Colossus” Emma Lazarus paints a very optimistic picture of America. To an immigrant reading the poem, America would appear as an ideal place to start a new and much better life.
Lazarus begins her poem by establishing the stark difference between the Colossus of Rhodes – one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and “The New Colossus” that will replace it as a symbol of human achievement and endeavor. For Lazarus, the old statue is masculine, “brazen”(1), and severe, symbolizing the often oppressive nature of Ancient Greco-Roman patriarchies.
In contrast, the Statue of Liberty is a “mighty woman” that wields a torch “whose flame / Is the imprisoned lightning”(Lazarus 4-5). This statement equates her with the Greek gods who were also able to command lightings such as Zeus and Thor. Lazarus names Lady Liberty “the mother of exiles”(6); a protecting and nurturing figure. Lady Liberty condemns the selfish ways of old world societies, in which the wealthy are far more concerned with their reputations (“storied pomp”)(Lazarus 9) then with caring for the needs of the population. The Statue of Liberty is a symbol for America. Lazarus uses her to invite those who want to escape hunger, oppression, and destitution. In other words, these people are the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” (Lazarus 11).
The struggles the lower class citizens and immigrants faced in America during the days of both Lazarus and Hughes are similar to the struggles immigrants and the lower class face today. Enrique is one such immigrant who is subject to the struggles aforementioned. Sonia Nazario is the author of “Enrique’s Journey.” Enrique is the protagonist of this story. Enrique is a Honduran migrant who goes on a journey across South America in hopes of a better life for himself. More importantly, he wants to reconnect with his mother in America. Enrique’s mother, Lourdes, took the dangerous journey herself in hopes of providing a better future for her children back home. Just a general description of Enrique’s story resonates so deeply with the ideas of “The New Colossus”.
Think about how bad the situation is in other countries that a woman would risk being subject to murder, rape, mutilation, starvation, and severe illness so she could provide a slightly better life for her children. That’s right, Lourdes didn’t become even make it to a middle-class livelihood let alone becoming a millionaire. A big part of what kept hope alive in both Enrique and his mother during their travels is the idealistic portrait of America that is painted by the extensive broadcasting of our culture through media today. It is the conceptually the same ideas that are presented in “The New Colossus”. Lourdes wasn’t very clear with Enrique when she had those hurried conversations with him over the phone about life in America. He didn’t know that his mother was working incredibly hard just to keep a roof over her head, send things back home to him and his sister, and save enough to eventually transport her kids to America. Lourdes’ life after settling in America is strikingly similar to the aforestated ideas in “Let America be America Again”. It became evident to Lourdes that the America she idealized was not the same America she arrived too.
Taking into consideration the idealized view of America portrayed by Emma Lazarus, the dystopian but realistic view of the country portrayed by Langston Hughes, the reasoning behind the poets’ contrasting views, and the story of Enrique, America remains the most ideal place to live on Earth. The most poverty stricken Americans and immigrants in America still have better lives than people in third world countries. That does not mean that we should not fight for equal opportunity. As a country, we want our future generations to have much better lives than we ever had or will have. This only possible if every American has a fair chance to pursue the American Dream: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness
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