America Never Was America to Me

There are precious few grand marshals in white suits in Ferguson, Missouri, this month. But the city is marching, and all eyes are upon it. Just in case you’ve been living in a hole or backpacking in the Yukon, here are the basic facts: At noon on Saturday, August 9, Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed 18-year-old, Michael Brown. Wilson is white. Brown was black. It took six days for the Ferguson Police Department to identify Wilson, and on each of those days and every day since, there have been hundreds of protestors in the streets of Ferguson, demanding justice for Michael Brown. But also demanding something more. Something deep and inchoate and fundamental about how we live together as Americans.

Night after night, I have joined millions of others across the nation—and apparently, across the world—as we have followed events on our televisions and Twitter feeds. We have witnessed police in riot gear chuck tear gas canisters and arrest journalists and shoot rubber bullets. We have heard stories of protestors throwing Molotov cocktails and looting liquor stores. Egyptian activists have been tweeting advice on how to respond to tear gas. Like many others, I have said things like: “I can’t believe this is happening in America.” And: “This looks like another country.”

But as I have been reminded many times over the past two weeks, that is ignorant talk. That is talk born of obliviousness and de facto segregation and the privilege of not having to fear for the safety of my children every time they walk out the door. It is talk borne out of the fact that I believe I can count on the police to protect me and my property and my daughters. But America is another country for some of our citizens—and residents— and I should know better.

Students at Howard University protest Michael Brown's death
Students at Howard University protest Michael Brown’s death

Another black man, another Missourian, told us as much in 1951, and we are hauntingly reminded of that account again now, in 2014. One of the reasons we read poems is to enter the internal experience of someone whose external circumstances are vastly different from our own. And Langston Hughes can draw us right in to the world of 20th Century African-Americans. Hughes, who was born 112 years ago and 293 miles from Ferguson—in Joplin, Missouri—wrote this in his opus, Montage of a Dream Deferred:

Seven ladies
and seventeen gentlemen
at the Elks Club Lounge
planning a parade:
Grand Marshal in his white suit
will lead it.
Cadillacs with dignitaries
will precede it.
And behind will come
with band and drum
on foot. . .on foot . . .
on foot . . .

Motorcycle cops,
white,
will speed it
out of sight
if they can:
Solid black,
can’t be right.

Marching . . .marching . . .
Marching . . .
Noon till night . . .
I never knew
That many Negroes
were on earth,
did you?

Of course, white suits and marching bands are in short supply in Ferguson this week. And I know that clashes in the dark must be frightening for police officers as well as protestors. But I can also say with relative confidence that the mostly white police in my mostly white neighborhood in my mostly white city are unlikely to turn dogs and tear gas and rubber bullets on me and my neighbors, even if we take to the streets in protest. They are unlikely to speed us out of sight mumbling “solid white/can’t be right.”

And Langston Hughes, God bless him, never lets us forget it. He does not let us put our hands over our mouths in shock and surprise, acting as if the events in Ferguson are an anomaly. Here’s the end of one of his most anthologized poems, “Let American Be America Again”:
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!

As events unfold now and over the years to come, Hughes’s words both hold us accountable and call us forth. There is no time for hand-wringing and empty expressions of shock to be papered over by the next news cycle, but there is still time to stand with the citizens of Ferguson, to raise our heads from the rack and ruin, and start to make America again.

Wendy Willis is a poet and essayist living in Portland, Oregon. Her first book of poems, Blood Sisters of the Republic, was released in October 2012. Wendy is also a lawyer and the Executive Director of the Policy Consensus Initiative, a national non-profit devoted to improving democratic governance.

08.26.14 by Wendy Willis