by Langston Hughes
In A Nutshell
Well, we feel better after that appropriate prelude to Langston Hughes's poem, "Democracy" (which was published in 1949), sung by the one and only Bob Marley. Folks have been singing, writing, painting, and shouting about the topics of freedom and democracy for a long time now. In fact, we can trace the origins of our own modern democracy all the way back to the days of the ancient Greeks. So although Hughes's poem isn't exactly original in terms of its topic, it's pretty relevant, given our current geopolitical times that prove freedom is still a hot issue.
Let's rewind a century or so (1870) when the Fifteenth Amendment granted African American men the right to vote by declaring the "right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Can anyone spot the obvious problems with this amendment? We'll give you a second.
Aha. We see the upraised hands of many eager scholars out there dying to tell us that: 1) the recently freed slaves had no means to pay the mandated poll taxes or pass the required literacy tests and 2) the amendment clearly grants only men the right to vote, making the whole notion of the right of "citizens of the United States" to vote a bit contradictory. Long story short? The Fifteenth Amendment wouldn't be fully realized until about a century after it was passed. For the majority of African Americans, it would take the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to really allow their voices to be heard.
Why the history lesson if we're talking about poetry? We definitely need a little background in order to fully appreciate what Hughes was talking about in "Democracy." Saying we're all free citizens of the United States is not the same as actually being free citizens of the United States. So when Hughes's speaker says, "freedom is a strong seed planted in a great need," we understand what he really means. It's not enough to talk about freedom; we need to also realize our own freedom through real action and real results. And since Bob Marley was singing about the same thing, we know the ideas we see in "Democracy" are mighty important to folks, no matter who they are or where they live.
Why Should I Care?
We're guessing you enjoy taking a stroll now and then, popping into a nearby café for the free Wi-Fi, maybe surfing the web for some interesting new tidbits. Maybe the thought of the next big election season has got you more excited than the rumors of Peter Jackson taking on a new Star Wars film. Well, guess what? None of that would be possible if it weren't for the freedom that comes with democracy. And that freedom certainly didn't just land in anyone's lap.
If history has taught us anything, it's that freedom and democracy are values that folks need to fight to get and fight to keep alive. The moment we quit is the moment we say, "Nah, we don't need a voice anymore, our leader's voice is voice enough." And, well, we're hoping that you stalwart Shmoopers have quite a bit to say and offer the world, which is why Langston Hughes's "Democracy" will prove once and for all that freedom is not something to take lightly.
Our speaker puts it all rather plainly for us: "I do not need my freedom when I'm dead/ I cannot live on tomorrow's bread." In other words, freedom can't happen if folks don't stand up and demand it. Saying freedom will come eventually—maybe tomorrow, maybe next year—is pretty much the equivalent to saying freedom isn't really worth the fight. Hughes was known for putting things rather plainly while still managing to capture the passions and realities that people, not just African Americans, feel and live every day. So give the guy a listen, think about what freedom means to you, and then go out and help make that freedom a reality (while still following basic traffic regulations, of course).