This prayer was delivered at Yom Kippur services at SAJ-Judaism that Stands for All on Wednesday, September 19, 2018. The Langston Hughes poem was offered by Reverend Nigel Pearce, Pastor of Grace Congregational Church in Harlem. SAJ and Grace have a monthly partnership called “Sacred Conversations,” where we gather to build relationships and talk about race and racism.
As we offer a Prayer for America on the Holiest Day of the Year, I have been reflecting on what it means to pray, as a Jewish community, for the future of our country.
The America I grew up was the America of immigrant success stories, of one generation becoming more educated and successful than the next.
The America I grew up in was an America that was imperfect but enabled freedom and self-expression.
The America I grew up in was an America in which I was a minority but I never felt threatened.
Over my adult life and especially over these past years, I have come to understand that the America I believed in was not the same America for so many others. And even for me, as a Jew, it was and is more complicated.
I have come to believe that we will only heal America when we tell the whole story- the multiple truths of what America was and is and when we can integrate the nuance and complexity into our narrative.
In that vein, today, we offer a special Prayer for America. It is a prayer of what America is and is not and yet can be. This poem written by the great poet of Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes. It was originally written in 1936, but despite some shifts in language, it could have been written yesterday. We pray for the future of our country:
Reverend Pearce: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.”
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,
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!