I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!”
— Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”
What old men know is that everything can change. Langston Hughes wrote these lines when I was 8 years old, in the very different America of 1935.
It was an America where the life of a black person didn’t count for much. Where women were still second-class citizens, where Jews and other ethnic whites were looked on with suspicion, and immigrants were kept out almost completely unless they came from certain approved countries in Northern Europe. Where gay people dared not speak the name of their love, and where “passing” — as white, as a WASP, as heterosexual, as something, anything else that fit in with what America was supposed to be was a commonplace, with all of the self-abasement and the shame that entailed.