Returning Home to America Through the Poet Langston Hughes

published in Dear America: Reflections on Race by Geeky Press

“Go back home Chink!”

Black ink sprayed all over the front door and wall of our house.

Graffiti is homo sapiens’ version of territory marking: a creative expression degraded to dog’s piss; a prophetic art blemished to a slur; a spray of hatred: “Get the fuck outta here!”

After six years of roach-infested, intermittent heating apartment, we moved into our first house, a step towards the American dream, a small plot of earth to our name, with a yard for us to tend, fenced not by white-pickets but steel mesh but a fence nevertheless. We turned the 70’s ranch house into our home. Grandmother taped up grainy b&w photos of her husband gone now for two years. Brothers and I put up Met’s 86 World Champions poster featuring Jesse Orosco’s lover’s jump into his catcher arms in our bedroom. Father decorated the living room in the poor man’s interior design, i.e. hand me down furniture that fit into our church van, arranged only physically, not aesthetically. Mother claimed the kitchen by making it reflect her culinary chaos — cooking for anyone ringing our bell with whatever found in the refrigerator and pantry. This was our home, until that night.

We unlocked the graffitied door and entered a house that felt cold, no longer feeling like our home. We were expelled. Not just from our home, but from the land. Although a year before, we swore an oath of allegiance with a photo framed President Reagan blessing us with a grandfatherly smile; although my father gathered nightly to pray for Reagan because he was God’s servant who magically made illegals into legals with a pen, signing the Immigration and Control Act of 1986– my father kept  the precarious life of deportation-fear to himself for six years; although we had our citizenship framed, and the original pad-locked; although, next to church, there was no other place we went with more regularity and religiosity than Kentucky Fried Chicken, the American shrine where a white Colonel Sanders invited us to dinner for his homemade “finger-licking” chicken; yet America was not home.

“Go back home chink.”

We were to deport ourselves back to China though we were not Chinese. I immigrated from Korea when I was seven. I had vague memories of it, even more vague emotional attachment. Korea was not my home because I gave up my Korean citizenship when I accepted American citizenship; because it had been 10 years since I’ve see Song Tan, the city where I grew up and I could not locate in a map until years later; because I could not tell you a single Korean poem but I liked reading T.S. Eliot though I could not exactly tell you why back then; because I fought my grandpa, tooth and nail and tongue, who scolded me for losing my Korean, my mother’s tongue, because, he said, “language is culture;” because I sang America’s National Anthem through its twenty octaves, but did not know the words of Korea’s anthem past the first line; because I have never been to China and I did not want to go back to Korea, except for a visit. But America was not my home, for China is for all yellows.

My father brought out buckets and sponges and we scrubbed vigorously; most of the ink dripped off, the outline persisted, a haunting ghost.

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

-Langston Hughes Let America be America Again

 

After a year in that house, we moved more east down Long Island that extended like a long tilde from the Q of Queens. We eventually went back to Queens where there were more immigrants like us. We were wandering. Americans in citizenship, but not in color.

When you are told you are not American enough times, you believe it. We are not reasoned to our beliefs, but shouted into them. The slurs become an inner voice, a consciousness. This is double consciousness. W.E. Dubois coined that term in his autoethnographic work as he tried to explicate The Souls of Black Folk, the deep rift within him. Double Consciousness is “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Double Consciousness is the ghost of the graffiti taking your body, becoming your own voice so you are saying to yourself, “Go back home, chink!” Intellectually, you know it’s not your voice, but because it’s in you, it’s hard for you to believe it’s not yours. Double consciousness is hating shopping at Macy’s on Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, because your Chink-mom will haggle on a dress price, and you hide behind the white, slender mannequin.

Double consciousness is societal-rejection coded into self-rejection. A code that is recoded thousand times a day, in the white faces of actors, politicians and writers, and anyone with power and speaks with authority.

When preaching to a new congregation, I am not introduced as a preacher, but as a Korean-American preacher. A true American needs no adjective. A true American is a noun. I am always a qualifying adjective. Double consciousness is the insubstantial adjective.

This double consciousness, this rejection of oneself, is not sustainable. You cannot negate yourself so consistently and deeply. You find a way to deal with it. There are options.

You compensate for your double consciousness by doubling your effort to be American, prove that damn inner voice wrong; be more American than any white guy. Change your name from “Kwang Sung” to “Samuel.” Hide that character-based Korean name in the ignorable middle name. Change your last name. Marry a “Smith” or a “Johnson.” Work on your pronunciation, roll the “R,” so it does not sound like that sing-song “L.” Lose your need to create an ending vowel as most Korean words, and get used to ending in a clean, hard consonant. Become William Carlos Williams, his Carlos’s immigrant history safely tucked away between the safe and proper English name of “Williams.”

Such bleaching is abrasive, and an erasure. Your Korean name pushed aside, and with it the Korean language, culture, and anything that comes from your Korean parents, and parents too. You lose your heritage; you lose your ancestors.

My grandfather came to America when he got into a motor cycle accident in Song Tan, driving 60 in a highway when he was 65. He moved in with us when we had moved back to Queens. He often got up from the dining table, tapping his walking cane, and chewed out my brother and I, accusing us of disrespecting an elder by not speaking Korean during meal time. “You could be cursing me out?” my grandfather suspected. My parents agreed and sent us to Korean school on Saturday mornings. They certainly wanted us to assimilate — bought us Met’s baseball caps, mitts and bats to play pick up baseball game — but Saturday baseball can wait for Korean school. “At least read your Korean name in Korean!” my grandfather railed.

My grandfather was not a sour person. “When he entered a room,” my grandmother told me after his funeral, “in a few minutes everyone would be laughing.” He was humorous and adventurous. He once bought a pair of hamsters from the street – the pair was a couple and when they had babies we saw them cannibalize their young. Scarred for life we wanted to throw them out. He kept them. He was also compassionate. But when it came to Korean language, he was deadly serious.

His last words to me were in Korean. He said, “nae-il da kkeun-nat-da” My elementary Korean interpreted it as, “tomorrow is the end.” I thought I had a day to make amends.

That day, I shared those words to a friend who had just come from Korea. He offered another interpretation: “My work is done.”

My grandfather believed God didn’t play dice with human lives. His life was evidence of God the director for he was an adamant atheist until he got struck dumb. He called for the village pastor to sing a hymn, and when he joined the pastor for the third verse, he found his voice again. He breathed because he was tasked. Now, his mission was done. He was putting his house in order; and I thought I had one more day. I never had that extra day. When I begged him for forgiveness, his eyes were locked to the ceiling; he had lost his voice, only seeking another breath.

How could I deny my grandfather? Especially after he left me.

Another option is to leave the country. Deny America. Why stay when you are not wanted? James Baldwin did that for a while, sought a new way to identify himself and went to Paris, where he discovered he was more American than African, that he knew a Tennessee white farmer’s songs and soul better than Africans who shared his dark skin.

America gets into you. Though America may reject you, America is alluring, conniving.

It is partly the indelibility of your childhood years. You don’t choose your childhood, but your childhood chooses many things for you, what you like to eat, what scares you, who you fall in love with. You do not have to love your childhood – though for your own sanity it is best to accept it —  but you cannot hate it. You cannot strip yourself of your childhood as much as you cannot strip off your body. Your yellow skin is your body and is you, but so is your American childhood, growing up watching Gilligan’s Island and Happy Days, and reading Shakespeare, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, and writing to be like them.

I grew up in Flushing, a corner of Queens, a terminus stop of 7 train, and just a station away from Shea stadium years before it was replaced by Citifield. When I drive through it on my way to visit my parents in Westbury, I wonder how I ever survived those streets. I don’t want my children to grow up there. Yet, nostalgia surges over me when I read the restaurant signs, Geum-gang-san, Sam-won-gak, from my childhood days. Macy’s is no longer there. I feel the pleasant nausea of homesickness when I drive by P.S. 20, where I played baseball on concrete and chalk-drawn bases.

You can’t leave America because America won’t leave you.

I went back to Korea right after graduating from seminary. I took a year off before starting church work, to learn Korean, do what my grandfather wanted me to do, my penance. Every time I hailed a taxi and gave the name of the stops, “Jong-no-sam-gak, Gyeong-bok-gung” the driver would pin me, “Gyo-po,” which means an ex-pat, or a Korean gone abroad. It is slightly derogatory. English flaunts itself in every Korean word I say.

Remove double consciousness by silencing one of the two voices.

“You are a chink.” Then don’t be one. But you can’t negate yourself. It’s suicide.

“Go home.” I will. Leave America, but America is not geography but a way of seeing, doing and speaking, and you can’t leave such things behind.

There is another option. Deny double-consciousness itself. Maybe the double-consciousness is not in you, but in America itself. And it took a poet to teach me this.

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?

And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

-Langston Hughes. Let America be America Again

 

There is a solace when you find people who suffer your oppression. So, I excelled in the Korean church youth group: president of youth group, then college-advisor of youth group, then youth pastor. They were “my people.” I huddled with them often. It’s a solace of silence; a solace but still a silence.

Your spine straightens when you hear your voice in a poem. Langston Hughe’s poem, Let America be America Again, gave body, nouns and verbs, larynx and teeth, to my voice.

Hughes spoke out loud what I was whispering to myself, and the inner voices became speech. Inner voices feel like inviolable conscience. Inner voices speak in absolutes and you feel your only option is obedience. Speech, however, is presentation of an idea. And an idea, you can explore, understand, disagree with. You can argue and refute speech. When you inner voice becomes speech, you can refute it.

Langston Hughes’ poem, Let America be America Again, incarnated my inner voice into a speech I can wrestle with.

 

I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.

-Langston Hughes, Let America be America Again

A poem is not read, but spoken. And speaking is resurrection; the voice of the poet and the voice of the reader resurrect each other. When I read Hughes out loud, I imagine Hughes of my imagination, calm and more baritone than his recording, reciting his poem without paper, as if he was birthing it for the first time in the speaking of it, a creation ex-nihilo. After all, he is the “I am” of the poem. At the same time, it is my voice I hear, with its deeper timber and tone and the Korean&Queens mutt accent. The words are vibrating on my lips. In my inner ear, I hear the cadence of Hughes, but my physical ear hears my inflections. Huges is the “I am” of the poem, but so am I. I am also the repeating “I am” of the poem.  Hughes channels his voice through me; I channel my voice through Hughes.

And as I speak the poem, I begin to understand because one doesn’t understand one’s voice until it steps out of the shadow of whisper and into the light of sound.

I know. I am not black. Hughes is black.

The black slavery experience and the yellow immigrant experience are different. The difference is not simple. It is not the difference of individuality, but of history. He has Transatlantic slave trade, arms and legs spread out like a meat in butcher’s market for better valuation, and selling away of his children like a bitch’s pups. And there is the difference of skin colors and where they fall in the racial hierarchy. Yellow is not as dark as black. Yellow is whitish and has been held up as the ideal minority, a faux social category created to guilt the black for their ghettos. But we share in the experience of double consciousness, that no matter the length of our stay in this land, we were never seen, and still are not seen as true Americans.

Yes, double consciousness has struck the yellows with the brutal club of racist laws too. We have our blues too. Miscegenation laws, yellow cannot marry white because it’s unnatural, because yellow is unnatural. Executive Order 9066 where “Japs,” though citizens and residents, were herded into concentration camps. Vincent Chin, whose skull was cracked open with a baseball bat and justice put a sticker price on a yellow life: three years of probation. That’s the spit-worth of a yellow life.  And the rational for releasing the murderers back into the society? They were Americans. Americans were losing jobs to foreigners. Vincent is a foreigner by the color of his skin, so who cannot understand Americans fighting for Americans and American ideals, with guns in Vietnam and baseball bats in Detroit. Patriotism is always in danger of cannibalism, of killing its own citizens and its own ideals. It is America who is the contradiction.

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—

 

This stanza is in response to inquiry of who are the silent ones, who are rejected and marginalized into silence.

But here is a surprising paradox I got only as I spoke this poem. In affirming one’s marginalization one’s margin becomes a central place, a place worthy of speech, of history, of poetry. In saying “I have been silent,” one has already broken the silence.

The “I” is reinstated when it recognizes the dissolution, the enslavement, the oppression, the expulsion of the “I.”

I grew up thinking I can get away from the haunt of the slur if I deny that I am the “chink.” But the poet Hughes, or as I now call him, prophet Hughes, tells me to own up. I am the chink. When I give witness to my rejection, I find that “I” doesn’t die. Silence kills, not the rejection. Speech resurrects. Speech overcomes rejection. And the “I” that goes through the rejection is an expansive I. When I affirm my experience, being “poor,” and/or “driven,” and/or “clutching” and/or “bearing slavery’s scars,” the “I” becomes encompassing, broad, universal.

When I affirm that I am Korean and that I am American, and that in this body, I am both, then that very confession becomes a declaration, that this body has no contradiction, that double consciousness is not inherent to my body. When I reject the self-rejecting inner voice, then I become the inner voice of America, the conscience that says to America that you have not been faithful to yourself, that you are far from your dream. That the tearing of the soul is within America itself.

The poet Frank Bidart writes, “Every serious work of art about America has the same/Theme: America/is a great Idea: the reality leaves something to be desired.”  Not just art, but history. The history of American is the story of the struggle between the Dream of equality for everyone and its racial injustice, the nightmare of its power-mongering, fear-driven racial politics. “All men are created equal” but not poor men, or red men, or black men, or yellow men, or women. Send me the “wretched refuse of your teeming shore/ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,” but not if they are Irish, French, Germans, Chinese, Japanese, or Muslims.

Every immigrant, everyone rejected by America is proof of America’s double-mindedness, the shame of America’ unfaithfulness to itself. The poor white, the black slave, the yellow immigrant judges America’s hypocrisy.

But the judging voice is not condemnation. It is not damnation but a call to repentance. And repentance is the energy hope gives, for repentance is the belief that we are not doomed in our sinful ways, that we can choose new possibilities. The immigrant as the inner voice does not conspire against America, but inspires America to unfailingly strive to be faithful to its own dreams. Immigrants are the prophets of America. Prophets seek to awake their nation from the stupor of their daydreams, so the nation they love can pursue a real dream. Prophets are not doomsayers but dreamers and those who know the American nightmares are the greatest dreamers.

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,

 

It is America who needs to come to terms with me, because this is my land; this is my country; and I am home.

 


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