Let America be America again—wrote Langston Hughes in 1935, words I read as a fifteen-year-old in a North Carolina classroom, words that moved me. Words that moved me not because I had a meaningful grasp of what Hughes was actually raising—a searing indictment of a failed national project, but because I thought Hughes was reinforcing what I had been raised to believe: this good country had made mistakes along the way but with hope and unity, it will only get better.
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—
This redemptive version of hope has not weathered well, as I grew to learn of the gaping wound that is the origin story of the United States—land theft, genocide, slavery, the carving of arbitrary borders, unprecedented environmental degradation; a beginning that sets the parameters of all afters. Yet it is also a version of hope that is familiar, and alluring.
We encounter it often in the wake of Trump’s election, the dangerous idea that at one point America was better than this, that the cruelty or violence we are witnessing are deviations from the vision, rather than its enacted outcome. It is much easier to say the system is broken than the system breaks us.
What if the expansion of dissent in the wake of Trump’s election also prioritized a time of mass reflection, that for many of us, the world that we want has yet to ever exist. There is no will be without coming to terms with what never was.
“All organizing is science fiction” writes adrienne maree brown, “We are bending the future, together, into something we have never experienced. A world where everyone experiences abundance, access, pleasure, dignity, freedom, transformative justice, peace. We long for this.”
Hughes, a revolutionary Black communist poet certainly had no illusions about what America was. He wrote damning passages about worker exploitation, indigenous land displacement, chattel slavery, and state violence; yet he chose to write the word “again,” implying a could be for the project that never was:
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me?
Compare this to the White nationalist rallying call “Make America Great Again.” Anyone who questions or opposes this nationalism, particularly Black and brown people, is labeled a threat, a force that must be contained or destroyed. The FBI has even coined the term “Black Identity Extremists” in the wake of the Movement for Black Lives’ high profile insurgent resistance. The Trump presidency makes the function of patriotism quite transparent: loyalty to “law and order” and the American state must always coexist with anti-indigenous and anti-Black violence and repression.
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
What would it look like to fully sit with Hughes’ “America never was”? What would it mean to disentangle hope from White nationalism? To situate our position—here, right now, on sacred, stolen land. There is no American model absent paradigmatic violence to cling to, to return to. What would it mean to say I feel devoted to you and not this flag? What would it mean to pledge allegiance to the not yet and the could be?
Even as it feels like the edges of the world are unraveling, communities living under imposed conditions of scarcity and surveillance continue to share resources, make demands, laugh, talk shit, resist, and exist.
From queer Southern liberation groups crowdsourcing funds to free imprisoned Black women, to radical cooperatives building alternative economic models rooted in community health, to operations of mutual aid built where the state failed after storms across the U.S. South and Caribbean. There has always been underground swells of resilient care in the midst of horrors; communities creating alternative worlds, without waiting for permission.
Even today, even now, people who were never meant to survive but did are all around us. Most days I do not have much to offer within a theory of hope, but when I look towards the history of insurrectionary imagination, and the collective labor of miracles, I feel led.