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First Person Plural: Part I

I keep returning to the first person plural: wewhat burdens, questions, complications, and opportunities come from a sense of collective self in poetry (and elsewhere)Even the most introductory sociology or social psychology course or textbook will likely illuminate the significance (for better and, of course, for worse) of one’s in-group identification—the ramifications of “we.” In poetry, we find an opportunity to explore (and subvert) that phenomenon.

“We” is everywhere. Last year, I attended Imagining America’s 2015 National Conference, which was titled “America Will Be! The Art And Power of Weaving Our We.” The “we” of the conference title coupled an implicit “we” and an explicit “we,” as the italicized exclamation “America will be” comes from Langston Hughes’s poem “Let America Be America Again,” a poem written in 1935 that begins by juxtaposing an inspirational call to reconnect with America’s founding ideals with a parenthetical refrain that reminds the reader of the bitter irony of these ideals for so many:

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.)

In the spirit of Walt Whitman, Hughes goes on to inhabit (“contain”) a multitude of individuals relegated to the margins of, or otherwise participating in, the harsh realities of “the American dream”:

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 . . .

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land . . .

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.

The individuals cohere into “the people,” echoing, of course, the Constitutional collective self of “We the People,” as the title’s imperative “let” overlays Moses’s Biblical imperative: “Let my people go.” Yet Hughes rallies to possibility, believing in the dream, if not the execution:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

America Will Be! The Art And Power of Weaving Our We”: The conference organizers coupled Hughes’s already complicated “we” with the “we” from a poem by Carol Bebelle, written for Imagining America’s 2014 conference. In this poem, “Weaving our WE,” “our we” is a progression, an exploration, and very much a made thing—a lived work of art—an apt perspective for a consortium focused on “artists and scholars in public life.” In Bebelle’s poem, written almost 80 years after Hughes wrote “Let America Be America Again,” the reader still grapples not only with the who of our we, but also with the how of our we. Each poem makes connections between identity, ideals, and action.

James Baldwin wrote, “History is not a procession of illustrious people. It’s about what happens to a people. Millions of anonymous people is what history is about.”