The narrator claims to be the American heartbreak and the rock upon which Freedom stumps its toe. He is the “great mistake” the colony of Jamestown made a long time ago.
In "American Heartbreak," Hughes deals with some of the same themes he addresses in other poems, such as the place of African Americans in the country, the difficulty of attaining the American dream, and the enduring legacies of slavery.
Hughes begins the poem by evoking the origins of the United States. He alludes to Plymouth Rock where the Pilgrims landed - a highly mythologized event in American history. Early American history often lionizes Plymouth Rock as the place where the industrious and religious colonists battled the wilderness, made friends with the Native Americans, and founded America peacefully. This founding narrative, along with the story of John Winthrop on the Arbella, William Penn signing a treaty with the Native Americans, and the Dutch buying Manhattan for a handful of trinkets, are all frequent points of pride for Americans.
In this poem, tough, Hughes calls attention to the darker side of the American founding narrative, emphasizing that there is more to history than the celebrated heroism. Hughes's allusion to "the great mistake / That Jamestown made long ago," refers to the fact that the very first colonizers embraced slavery within a decade of their arrival in the colonies. The colony was founded in 1609, and ten years later, Dutch traders brought the first group of 19 or so African slaves that they had taken from a Spanish ship. By 1640, the records of Jamestown mentioned the first official slave, and the "peculiar institution" was engrained henceforth.
Hughes makes the point that despite the idealistic and inspiring rhetoric of freedom, liberty, and equality that underlies the founding of the United States, the country also promoted slavery and racial inequality from the beginning of its existence. Slavery is the obstacle on which freedom "stumps its toe" in the context of American history. Jeff Westover, who writes about Hughes's poetry as it pertains to the African Diaspora, writes, "Hughes makes it clear that the rock of slavery is the dirty open secret of American democracy, for the poem never names the 'mistake' to which it alludes. The absence of the word slavery in the text of the poem itself suggests that the speaker assumes – and knows he can assume – that his audience will supply the missing term, the presence of its absence."
The poem, then, also presents an element of the double consciousness that W.E.B. DuBois wrote about (also see summary and analysis for "I, Too"). The speaker in this poem is an American - an African American. He is of America but not of America, standing outside of it to critique what he experiences so vividly inside of it. This poem, Westover notes, "offers an important insight into the moral and political meanings of Jamestown."