The 4th of July. A national holiday, holy day, celebrating the birth of this country. My country…
‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty,
of thee I sing;
land where my fathers died,
land of the pilgrim’s pride,
from every mountain side,let freedom ring.
I don’t know what Samuel Francis Smith was thinking when he composed these words, which, set to music, were first sung in Boston on July 4, 1831. For the words of another, whose thoughts and feelings I cannot know completely, always mean more than my interpretation. Still, the truth of a text, the wisdom of a word lies not only in my quest for the author’s meaning, but also in my search for my understanding, looking through the lens of my experience and perceptions. So, as another’s words always mean more than my interpretation, they also always mean less or other than my understanding.
Seeking to make meaning for myself, when I read and sing, “My country, ‘tis of thee”, I do so bittersweetly, rejoicing sadly in a great ideal not yet reached, a wondrous dream not yet realized.
In 1938, James Langston Hughes, poet laureate of Harlem, wrote:
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be…
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real,
and life is free,Equality is in the air we breathe…
I cannot know fully what Hughes was thinking when he penned these words. Still, seeking to make meaning for myself, he speaks lovingly and longingly of a day gone by when he wishes the American ideal had been reached. In this, he gives voice to his anger. Speaking of “a land (of) Liberty”, quickly he replies, “There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’”
Hughes’s poem is a stern polemic, arguing that any nostalgia for a past golden age is at best naïve idealization. Yet this is more than the diatribe of a bitter victim. It is a call to action, a summons to actualize, to make real the dream.
Who does Hughes call? All the disenfranchised of his day: “the poor white…the Negro…the red man…the immigrant” and later, “the farmer” and “the worker”. Hughes calls all people to fulfill America’s promise, daring to speak for all, “America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath – America will be!”
Through the words of a song and a poem, I look around and see an America not quite free. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., if any one is not free, then none are free. And if I take seriously the poet’s cry, then I am bidden, with what I am and what I have, when and where I can, to help make real the dream.
How? In the words of a favorite hymn, “I know not where the road will lead I follow day by day, or where it ends: I only know I walk the King’s highway…” As a follower of Jesus, I embrace his life and ministry of unconditional love and justice for all. In that, what I have sought to do, consciously and committedly for a number of years, is to hold in tension my desire to be in relationship with those with whom I disagree – even on matters of race and equality, theology and ethics – and in that conversation to speak my truth with integrity for myself and to listen with respect for others. Though I cannot know if I have been or will be successful, I strive to be faithful, alway praying that on some future Independence Day I can sing, not bittersweetly, but rather with the gratitude of having joined my hand in labor with countless others to bring the ideal to greater light:
Let music swell the breeze and ring from all the trees
sweet freedom’s song;
let mortal tongues awake,
let all that breathe partake,
let rocks their silence break,
the sound prolong.