Plowing in today’s world
Langston Hughes was a poet born in Joplin, MO and lived many of his years in Lawrence, KS. He was a driving force during the Harlem renaissance of the 1920’s and 30’s and accomplished playwright. Hughes and his contemporaries were often in conflict with the goals and aspirations of the black middle class. The primary conflicts were the depiction of blacks in the lower social-economic strata, the superficial divisions, and prejudices based on skin color within the black community. Hughes was unashamedly black at a time when it was unfashionable. His main concern was the uplift of his people, whose strengths, resiliency, courage, and humor he wanted to record as part of the general American experience. Thus, his poetry and fiction centered generally on insightful views of the working class lives of blacks in America. I wanted to bring you this poem that, in my mind, captures what we should be thankful for during this holiday. Though Langston may not have fully known that what he was writing, this poem is not just for the common man, but truth of our undeserved grace and freedom, given by Christ, that is present in our lives.
When a man starts out with nothing, when a man starts out with his hands empty, but clean, When a man starts to build a world, He starts first with himself and the faith that is in his heart- The strength there, The will there to build.
First in the heart is the dream- Then the mind starts seeking a way. His eyes look out on the world, on the great wooded world, on the rich soil of the world, on the rivers of the world. The eyes see there materials for building, See the difficulties, too, and the obstacles. The mind seeks a way to overcome these obstacles. The hand seeks tools to cut the wood, To till the soil, and harness the power of the waters. Then the hand seeks other hands to help, a community of hands to help- Thus the dream becomes not one man’s dream alone, but a community dream. Not my dream alone, but our dream. Not my world alone, but your world and my world, belonging to all the hands who build.
A long time ago, but not too long ago, Ships came from across the sea bringing the pilgrims and prayer-makers, adventurers and booty seekers, Free men and indentured servants, Slave men and slave masters, all new- To a new world, America!
With billowing sails the galleons came, Bringing men and dreams, women and dreams. In little bands together, Heart reaching out to heart, Hand reaching out to hand, they began to build our land. Some were free hands seeking a greater freedom, some were indentured hands hoping to find their freedom, some were slave hands guarding in their hearts the seed of freedom, but the word was there always: Freedom.
Down into the earth went the plow in the free hands and the slave hands, in indentured hands and adventurous hands, turning the rich soil went the plow in many hands that planted and harvested the food that fed and the cotton that clothed America. Clang against the trees went the ax into many hands that hewed and shaped the rooftops of America. Splash into the rivers and the seas went the boat-hulls that moved and transported America. Crack went the whips that drove the horses across the plains of America. Free hands and slave hands, indentured hands, adventurous hands, white hands and black hands held the plow handles, ax handles, hammer handles, launched the boats and whipped the horses that fed and housed and moved America. Thus together through labor, all these hands made America.
A long time ago, but not too long ago, a man said:
“ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL–ENDOWED BY THEIR CREATOR WITH CERTAIN UNALIENABLE RIGHTS–AMONG THESE LIFE, LIBERTY AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS.”
His name was Jefferson. There were slaves then, but in their hearts the slaves believed him, too, and silently too for granted that what he said was also meant for them. It was a long time ago, but not so long ago at that, Lincoln said: “NO MAN IS GOOD ENOUGH TO GOVERN ANOTHER MAN WITHOUT THAT OTHER’S CONSENT.
There were slaves then, too, but in their hearts the slaves knew what he said must be meant for every human being- Else it had no meaning for anyone.
Then a man said:
BETTER TO DIE FREE THAN TO LIVE SLAVES
He was a colored man who had been a slave but had run away to freedom.
And the slaves knew what Frederick Douglass said was true.
In those dark days of slavery, guarding in their hearts the seed of freedom,
The slaves made up a song:
Keep Your Hand On The Plow! Hold On!
That song meant just what it said: Hold On! Freedom will come! Keep Your Hand On The Plow! Hold On! Out of war it came, bloody and terrible!
But it came!
Some there were, as always, who doubted that the war would end right, that the slaves would be free, or that the union would stand, but now we know how it all came out. Out of the darkest days for people and a nation, we know now how it came out. There was light when the battle clouds rolled away. There was a great wooded land, and men united as a nation.
America! Land created in common, Dream nourished in common,
Keep your hand on the plow! Hold on! If the house is not yet finished,
Don’t be discouraged, builder! If the fight is not yet won, don’t be weary, soldier!
The plan and the pattern is here, woven from the beginning Into the warp and woof of America:
ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL.
NO MAN IS GOOD ENOUGH TO GOVERN ANOTHER MAN WITHOUT HIS CONSENT.
BETTER DIE FREE, THAN TO LIVE AS SLAVES.
Who said those things? Americans! Who owns those words? America! Who is America? You, me! We are America! To the enemy who would conquer us from without,
We say, NO!
To the enemy who would divide And conquer us from within,
We say, NO!
FREEDOM! BROTHERHOOD! DEMOCRACY!
To all the enemies of these great words: We say, NO!
A long time ago,
An enslaved people heading toward freedom
Made up a song: Keep Your Hand On The Plow! Hold On!
The plow plowed a new furrow across the field of history. Into that furrow the freedom seed was dropped. From that seed a tree grew, is growing, will ever grow. That tree is for everybody, for all America, for all the world. May its branches spread and shelter grow
Until all races and all peoples know its shade.
KEEP YOUR HAND ON THE PLOW! HOLD ON!