Posted: March 30th, 2022
Democracy: Hughes vs. Rose
We celebrate democracy in America every day. Whether we are pledging allegiance to the flag or honoring the achievements of our nation’s veterans, the idea that America is the greatest country in the world is something most people do not question. However, writers such as Langston Hughes and Reginald Rose have presented challenges to the idea that democracy is something which is good in a straightforward and uncomplicated way. Democracy requires good people to function; it is something that must be fought for every day.
Rose’s drama Twelve Angry Men depicts the jury deliberations of a group of men who are deciding the fate of a young man that allegedly committed murder. Only one of the jurors questions the supposedly obvious fact that the defendant is guilty. Gradually, the juror wins more and more men over to his side until they finally come to a decision that there is not enough evidence to condemn the teenager. On the surface, this seems to suggest that democracy, or the ‘one man one vote’ idea is a good one. However, over the course of the play, many of the jurors express extremely racist views and show evidence that they are not giving full consideration to their duty as citizens. One man has baseball tickets and wants to leave for the game. Another man is very easily bullied by others. This questions the idea that people are always capable of deciding the truth in an unbiased and objective fashion.
But even though Twelve Angry Men suggests that democracy is difficult, justice ultimately wins in the end. Although not every man is good, the majority opinion eventually shifts to what is clearly shown to be correct by Rose. Democracy is seen as something all of us must work to achieve. All men have their prejudices. Some men, such as Juror 7, do not take their responsibilities very seriously. But this does not mean that the system does not have a future and cannot function. This could also be said to be true of voting. While many men and women do not give enough time and attention to their vote or may make decisions out of personal prejudices rather than the actual needs of the public, the system ultimately works better than not having democracy at all.
However, Langston Hughes questions that notion in his poem “Democracy.” Hughes was an African-American poet of the Harlem Renaissance and saw the fallout from prejudices that were not corrected by democracy every day. The fact that America remained a nation divided by black and white and did not even give full rights to African-Americans when it was born demonstrates, in Hughes’ eyes, that democracy is a very questionable idea. In fact, one could argue that from the perspective of African-Americans, democracy did not really exist until the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. Hughes writes:
I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.
Of course, this time and deliberation is what is celebrated in Rose’s play where the truth eventually emerges. But Hughes reminds the reader that African-Americans struggled for equality as a minority group in a democracy without a voice even though very eloquent people raised their voices and demanded equality. True, today we have an African-American president. But how many potentially great people were denied their lives and liberty? Democracy may be better than some alternative systems of government but it cannot be better than the people who cast their votes; even Twelve Angry Men could have had a very different ending if one or two of the jurors’ identities were changed.
Hughes, Langston. “Democracy.” Web. 14 Dec 2015.
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