Did Former Fox News Contributer Rick Santorum Rip Off Langston Hughes?

This past Wednesday, former Republican Sen. and Fox News contributor Rick Santorum announced that he was forming an exploratory committee to see if maybe he might want to consider the possibility of potentially taking a stab the prospects of conceivably thinking about the outside chance of the likelihood of running for president. With that in mind his campaign chose the slogan “Fighting to make America America again.” Which in the interest of accuracy should read: “I might be interested in possibly defending America at some point in time and potentially returning America to some vague ideal that I will leave up to the voters to fill in. But only if it makes political sense.” Word is they tried that slogan but it didn’t fit on t-shirts.

Anyhow, the slogan they did choose has caused a ruckus with folks on the left claiming that Santorum’s campaign ripped off Langston Hughes, one of America’s preeminent poets known for his influence during the Harlem Renaissance, and his troubled Communistic views (which he distanced himself from later in his life). Many also believe that Hughes was homosexual. Santorum, who is an ardent conservative is also adamantly opposed to homosexuality at one point equating it with incest. “If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual [gay] sex within your home,” Santorum told the Associated Press in 2003, “then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything.”

But did the Santorum campaign actually rip off Hughes? The poem in question is called “Let America be America Again” and the sections in question are the first, 14th (including the one-liners) and last section:

First Section:

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.

14th section:

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,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Last Section:

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!

Notice that Hughes never mentioned fighting. So compare the highlighted lines to “Fighting to make America America Again.” It sounds very similar. But similarity itself is not enough to prove a ripoff. Additionally, those lines are not the whole of Hughes’ poem. Hughes uses those lines as a sarcastic pivot point and he does so beautifully.

The question is: Is it possible for someone (maybe even someone who has never read the poem) to have come up with a very similar line and potentially have it mean something very different?

When they stand alone, nothing in the line “Let America be America again” nor “Fighting to make America America Again” says anything specific about what America is or was. And in both cases that’s kind of the point.

So with a simple Internet search for “make America America Again” from January 1, 1980 to January 1, 2011, here are the top 5 results:

  1. A forum post in which a guy named Martin has a signature that says “Support the Bill of Rights – boycott the RIAA and stop stealing intellectual property. Together, the actions will make America America again.” Posted August 4th, 2004
  2. A comment on the TimesUnion.com: a reader named Josh says, “finally someone trying to make america america again. Is Arizona going overboard? Yes, but they are the only state that is doing anything to stop immigration.” Posted: May 2nd, 2010
  3. A Facebook page for SOSSMO. “SOSSMO is transparent and authentic. We have no hidden agendas and only wish to help. Our promise is that “together we will make America, America again”. Join the movement! Join SOSSMO!”
  4. WhyY.org: A webpage for (R) Glen Urquhart which states his platform as “‘For Freedom, For Lower Taxes, For America’ – Reagan conservative, who wants to make America, America again and restore liberty.” Posted Monday, July 12th, 2010
  5. Seacoastonline.com: An Article titled: “Don’t let the two-party system destroy America” – “Succeed or fail, we need to try and make America, America again.” Posted: January 16, 2010 2:00 AM

Notice that none of these results refer to Hughes poem. Who knows if they were inspired by Hughes but the use of the words “make America America again” is not unique nor very original. I think I heard my cat say it once.

As great a poet as Hughes is, I don’t think he would fight for those for words. Heck, Hughes probably borrowed the phrase from the political rhetoric of his time.  How else would the poem make sense?

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