MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: Keep Your Hand on the Plow

Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes (Courtesy of biography.com)

I begin each year with a women’s spiritual retreat led by Rev. Shannon Daley-Harris, our Religious Affairs Adviser, at Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Haley Farm in Tennessee. This year, the Rev. Dr. Janet Wolf, director of CDF Haley Farm and Nonviolent Organizing, shared a meditation based on Langston Hughes’ brilliant 1943 poem “Freedom’s Plow,” which she had been using in her ministry on Tennessee’s death row and maximum security prison. All of us were caught up in the poem’s descriptions of centuries of American struggle against oppression and for America’s promised dream of freedom and justice for all.

Excerpts from “Freedom’s Plow”:

. . . 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…

…America is a dream.
The poet says it was promises.
The people say it is promises — that will come true.
The people do not always say things out loud,
Nor write them down on paper.
The people often hold
Great thoughts in their deepest hearts
And sometimes only blunderingly express them,
Haltingly and stumblingly say them,
And faultily put them into practice.
The people do not always understand each other.
But there is, somewhere there,
Always the trying to understand,
And the trying to say,
‘You are a (wo)man.* Together we are building our land.’

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 (WO)MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL.
NO (WO)MAN IS GOOD ENOUGH
TO GOVERN ANOTHER (WO)MAN
WITHOUT HER CONSENT.
BETTER DIE FREE,
THAN TO LIVE 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!
BROTHER/SISTERHOOD!
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!

*For the Women’s Spiritual Retreat we added (wo)men in solidarity.

Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund (www.childrensdefense.org).