America, Past, Present, and Future

“America” by Claude McKay (1921) and “Let America be America Again” by Langston Hughes (1995) both discuss America as a work-in-progress through creating juxtaposition and tension by using the past to look forward to the future. The last four lines of McKay’s poem reads “Darkly I gaze into the days ahead, / And see her might and granite wonders there, / Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand, / Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.” In these lines, the speaker positions themselves by looking toward the future as “priceless treasures sinking in the sand,” both inscribing the line with futurity while also emphasizing treasure, which can only be viewed as treasure because it is valued through a past process that has associated it with said value. Treasure, which McKay associates with America, is linked to both the past and future because it is something that has been ascribed with value in the past that can then be sought after in the future, even if buried in sand.

Hughes similarly uses imagery that integrates both the past and future in its signification. He writes “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.” In these lines, Hughes laments “Let America be America again,” implying a process that needs to take place in the future to reestablish a value that may have existed in the past (I say may, becomes Hughes makes it clear that the “dream” of America was never a reality for many). In these lines Hughes also conjures the image of the pioneer, another image which is both associated with the past of America but also the inherent concept of the pioneer as an explorer of the future.

These images in both poems create internal tensions between the past and the future, encouraging a reevaluation of how these two poles might help us make sense of present America. I think there’s a potential connection here to the reading on modernism and primitivism in regard to how these terms envision the past and future, and how all of these terms may be collapsed into a single definition rather than demarcated as separate entities.