Langston Hughes’ Poem Sung at Minneapolis Westminster Church

On Martin L. King, Jr. Sunday (January 15) Cantus, a male vocal ensemble, sang ‘America Will Be!” as the Offertory Anthem at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.

The text of the anthem was Langston Hughes’ powerful poem, “Let America Be America Again” with music by Paul J. Ridoi, composer and a tenor vocalist with Cantus.[1]

Afterwards I discovered the actual title of the poem, retrieved and read and re-read the words of the poem and conducted Internet research about the poem and Hughes and after reflection came to powerful conclusions about the poem.

Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes

First, Hughes (1902-1967), an African-American, was a poet, novelist and author and an important participant in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. He flirted with communism, but never became a member of the Party, and as a result in the 1950’s was subpoenaed by a Senate committee led by Joseph McCarthy, which was portrayed in a play at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater.[2]

Second, the poem was written in 1935 in the midst of The Great Depression and originally published in the July 1936 issue of Esquire Magazine.

As another commentator said, the poem speaks of the American dream that never existed for blacks and lower-class Americans and the freedom and equality that they and every immigrant hoped for but never achieved. The poem besides criticizing their unfair life in America conveys a sense of hope or call to action to make the American Dream soon come.[3]

Third, the actual text of the poem is the following:

“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.’)

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

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
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!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home–
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

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?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay–
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again–
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,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!”

Fourth, the poem’s first three stanzas (minus the first three parenthetical statements) open with a common statement of the American Dream. But it soon becomes apparent the poet speaks for those who are left out of that Dream.

That certainly includes all members of his own race—blacks– who have been repressed and disadvantaged by the Great Depression: “American never was America to me . . . It never was America for me . . . There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free,’ . . . I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars, . . . I am the Negro, servant to you all . . . And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came . . . The land that’s mine–… Negro’s, ME.”

But the poet also speaks for others who are similarly repressed and disadvantaged—(a) “I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart;” (b) “I am the red man driven from the land;” (c) “I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek;” (d) “I am the young man, full of strength and hope, Tangled in that endless chain Of profit, power, pain, 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!” (e) I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil;” (f) “I am the worker sold to the machine.” (g) “I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—Hungry yet today despite the dream. Beaten yet today;” (h) “I am the man who never got ahead, The poorest worker bartered through the years;” (i) “I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore, And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea;” (j) one of “the millions on relief today, the millions shot down when we strike, the millions who have nothing for our pay;” and (k) “the land That’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s.”

Yet all of these now repressed and disadvantaged people are the ones “who dreamt our basic dream . . . to build a ‘homeland of the free. . . who “made America.”

The poem’s opening lines by using the passive verb “let” suggests that the desired changes in America will just happen by some outside forces. The concluding lines of the poem, however, reject that interpretation and instead become a call to action by the repressed and disadvantaged: who “Must bring back our mighty dream again . . . We must take back our land again, America! . . . And yet I swear this oath—America will be! . . . We the people must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain—All, all the stretch of those great green states—And make America great again!”

I especially invite comments from those who have studied Hughes’ life and works more extensively than I have.

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[1] The bulletin for the service and a video recording of the service are online.

[2] Langston Hughes BiographyLangston Hughes, Wikipedia; U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy Encounters Langston Hughes at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater, dwkcommentaries.com (May 13, 2012).

[3] Poem, Let America Be America Again, PoemHunter.com; Let America be America Again, Wikipedia. The title of this poem was used in a 2004 presidential campaign song by John Kerry, then a U.S. Senator. I will resist the temptation to wonder whether Donald Trump’s incessant campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” was drawn from this poem. I doubt it, and Hughes, I am confident, would be appalled at any such use of his words.

 

 

Does Cuba Have a Right To Terminate the U.S. Lease of Guantanamo Bay?

Whether Cuba has a legal right to terminate its lease of Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. is an important issue that has been addressed by Michael J. Strauss, an expert in international relations with a specialty in territorial leases by states. [1] A prior post referred to his 2013 article that touched on this topic, and this post is based upon his more extensive discussion of the issue in his 2009 book and a 2014 article. His book also helps clarify the history regarding the amount of the rent charged to the U.S. under the lease. [2]

Does Cuba have a legal right to terminate the lease?

As the lease does not grant Cuba an express right of termination and as there has been no decision by a court or arbitrator on the validity of any other purported termination right, no definitive answer can be given as to whether Cuba has a legal right to terminate the lease. At least the following four theories have been suggested for such a result.

First, after the Revolution, Cuba asserted that the lease was perpetual and, therefore, invalid. For example, a 1970 book by the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs asserted, “The contract for the lease in perpetuity . . . lacks existence and juridical validity because it is faulty in its essential elements: a) radical incapacity of the government of Cuba to cede a piece of national territory in perpetuity; b) for the same reason, the object and the reason are illegal; c) consent was wrested through irresistible and unjust moral violence.” (Book at 104, 171.)

Strauss, however, rejects the notion that the lease is perpetual. As noted in the prior post, the lease does not have a set termination date, unlike most U.S. leases (commercial and residential) and most leases “at the state level” (or “are otherwise open to termination by various means”). (Book at 106.) The absence of a termination date, however, does not mean that the lease is perpetual as most perpetual “leases [at the state level] . . . tend to explicitly [so] specify.” (Book at 107.)

Moreover, “the lease has had clearly stated conditions by which it can be ended.” The original 1903 lease was for “the time required for the purposes of [U.S.] coaling and naval stations.” And the 1934 treaty, reconfirming the lease, provided that it could be terminated by U.S. abandonment of Guantanamo Bay or by mutual agreement. (Book at 108, 215, 233.)

In addition, on two occasions after the Cuban Revolution, the U.S. has considered terminating the lease. One was in U.S. internal discussions about ways to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, but that idea was rejected internally and not publicly disclosed. (Book at 109-12.) The second was the idea’s incorporation in section 201 of the Helms-Burton (Libertad) Act of 1996 requiring the U.S. in order to provide assistance to a hoped-for free and independent Cuba to “be prepared to enter into negotiations . . . to return the [U.S.] Naval Base at Guantanamo to Cuba or to renegotiate the present agreement under mutually agreeable terms.” (Book at 112-14, 249-50.)

A second legal theory for Cuba’s termination of the lease is a fundamental change in circumstances (rebus sic stantibus) from the lease’s negotiation and signing in 1903 to today. This theory is covered by Article 62 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties and was discussed in the prior post. Strauss discusses the views on this issue by international legal scholars and notes the reluctance of international tribunals to invoke this ground. Another difficulty with this theory is the passage of time (over 112 years). As a result, Strauss does not see it as a winning approach for Cuba. (Book at 114-19.) Related to this theory is the 1970 argument by Cuba that the purpose of the lease had ceased to exist: the purpose of the 1903 lease (enable the U.S. to maintain Cuba’s independence and protect its people) was negated by the 1934 treaty’s emphasis on friendly relations between the two countries and that treaty’s purpose was negated by the hostile relations after the Cuban Revolution. (Book at 171.)

A third legal theory, also discussed in the prior post, would be the argument that the lease was procured by “the threat of force or use of force in violation of the principles of international law embodied in the [U.N.] Charter” under Article 52 of said Vienna Convention. That Convention, however, provides in Article 4 that it can be used only by states that are parties to the Convention and only after they became parties, and Cuba became such a party on September 9, 1998. Moreover, the U.N. was not in existence when the lease was signed in 1903. Nor, says Strauss, has “a new peremptory norm of general international law emerged” on this issue that could be a basis for a Cuban claim of a right to terminate the lease. (Book at 119-21.) This theory was put forward in 1970 as part of an argument advanced in a book by Cuba’s Foreign Ministry. (Book at 171.)

The fourth legal theory for a Cuban claim to a right to terminate would be based on alleged U.S. breach of the lease. This is covered by Article 60 of said Vienna Convention and is limited to a “material breach,” which for present purposes is “the violation of a provision essential to the accomplishment of the object or purpose of the treaty.” Strauss discussed two possible grounds for this theory:

  • The lease restricts U.S. use of Guantanamo Bay to a “coaling station” or a “naval station,” and Cuba would have to argue and prove that the U.S. has exceeded those uses. Strauss is skeptical of such a general argument because the U.S. consistently has opted for a broad interpretation of these limitations with Cuba’s tacit agreement and because it should be difficult to satisfy the definition of “material” breach. However, the U.S. use of Guantanamo as a facility for detention of alleged terrorists after 9/11 and the U.S.’ alleged violations of the human rights of such detainees would be a stronger claim reinforced by consistent Cuban objections to such uses and by the remote possibility that Cuba could be subject to liability for any human rights violations at the Base. (Book at 121-23, 144-55, 174; Cuba Responsibility.)
  • In Article III of the second part of the 1903 lease the U.S. “agrees that no person, partnership, or corporation shall be permitted to establish or maintain a commercial, industrial or other enterprise within [Guantanamo].” The U.S. has clearly breached this provision by having a McDonald’s Restaurant and a bowling alley on the site, but it is difficult to see such ventures as a “material breach” of the lease. A stronger argument for such a claim could be built on the U.S.’ more recently having private-contractor employees participate in the interrogation and alleged abuse of detainees. Such an argument also ties in with the assertion that the U.S.’ use of Guantanamo as a detention facility and its alleged abuse of detainees constitutes a material breach of the lease. But do such breaches affect the object and purpose of the lease and thus constitute a material breech? (Book at 123; Private Sector; Cuba Responsibility.)

The Amount of the Rent

The original 1903 lease called for annual rent of $2,000 in gold coin for Guantanamo Bay and Bahía Honda without a breakdown for the two territories. Because the Guantanamo Bay territory constituted 94.5% of the total territory, the rent hypothetically could be divided on that basis, resulting in annual rent for Guantanamo of $1,890. This amount, argues Strauss, was “considerably higher than what any other party would have paid in 1903 for renting the same territory.” In other words, the rent was a material element, not a token or trivial amount. (Book at 126.)

In 1916, however, the U.S. presumably abandoned Bahía Honda, and the rent remained at $2,000 in gold coin, which in Strauss’ judgment was still in excess of the fair market value of the Guantanamo territory. (Book at 127.)

In 1933, at the start of the Great Depression, the U.S. left the gold standard, and the next year (1934), the U.S. Dollar was devalued with “the value of old U.S. gold dollars being fixed at $1.693125 in legal U.S. currency. The annual rent of $2,000 in gold for Guantanamo Bay, when converted at this rate, became $3,386.25. This was the amount the [U.S.] began paying annually to Cuba, by U.S. government check, starting in 1934.” This change was made unilaterally by the U.S. without a signed agreement with Cuba, which acquiesced in the change. (Book at 127-30.)

Similar changes were made unilaterally by the U.S. in 1973 with an increase of the annual rental check to $3,676.50 (based upon a 1972 revision in the value of the old U.S. gold dollar) and in 1974 to $4,085 (based upon a 1973 revision in the value of the old U.S. gold dollar). (Book at 130-31.) [3]

As mentioned in a prior post, since 1974 the $4,085 figure has continued to be used by the U.S. for the annual rental checks that have not been cashed by Cuba since the Cuban Revolution take-over of the government in 1959 (except for the first one in 1959). (Book at 136-37).

As Strauss recognizes, the rental amount has never been adjusted to reflect ever changing fair market values of the territory. As a result, the annual rental for at least the half-century after the Cuban Revolution has become a token payment. (Book at 131-32.)

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[1] Strauss is Lecturer in International Relations at the Centre d’Etudes Diplomatiques et Stratégiques, Paris, specializing in territorial leases as phenomena of international relations and international law for resolving sovereignty disputes. Prior to entering academia, he was an international journalist and served as bureau chief for Agence France-Presse’s AFX News in Paris, Knight-Ridder Financial News in Madrid, and Dow Jones News Service in Geneva. He took his Ph.D. in International Relations and Diplomacy from the above Centre and his M.Sc. in Journalism from Columbia University, where he was an International Fellow in the School of International Affairs. He is the author of The Viability of International Leases in Resolving International Sovereignty Disputes: A Comparative Study.

[2] The Strauss article that was cited in the prior post is Cuba and State Responsibility for Human Rights at Guantanamo, 37 So. Ill. Univ. L.J. 533, 533-36 (2013) [hereafter “Cuba Responsibility”].  This post is based upon Strauss’ The Leasing of Guantanamo Bay (Praeger International 2009) [hereafter “the Book”] and U.S. Socialism in Cuba: Implications of Prohibiting the Private Sector at Guantanamo Bay, 24 Am. Soc’y for Study of Cuban Economy 129 (2014) [hereafter “Private Sector”]

[3] The earlier post erroneously asserted the $4,085 rental fee started in the mid-1930’s.