As Independence Day approaches, our hearts and minds turn to holy writ.
At least, it sounds like holy writ.
Immigrant Irving Berlin writ it as a fervent prayer, and Kate Smith belted it out:
God Bless America, Land that I love.
Stand beside her, and guide her,
Through the night with a light from above.
From the mountains to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam,
God bless America,
My home sweet home.
If you remember the Kate Smith you probably also remember John Cameron Swayze. I remember each with fondness and was a fan of both Swayze’s NBC Camel News Caravan (1949 to 1956) and the CBS Kate Smith Hour (1950 to 1954). I remember she read charming stories to children. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced her to King George VI of England, saying, “Miss Smith is America.”
As it turns out, that was all too true.
Recently both the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Flyers stopped playing Kate Smith’s recording of God Bless America at games when it was revealed she also belted out this cringe-worthy ditty in 1931:
Someone had to pick the cotton,
Someone had to pick the corn,
Someone had to slave and be able to sing,
That’s why darkies were born.
It seems that God Bless America and Someone had to pick the cotton form an apt metaphor of where our nation finds itself in the 243rd year of its independence.
Founded by white men who either owned slaves or co-depended with slave owners, our forebears pursued a virulently racist agenda climaxing with a bloody civil war that was supposed to free the slaves. But as Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, points out, slavery never completely disappeared in America. “The greatest evil of American slavery was not involuntary servitude but rather the narrative of racial differences we created to legitimate slavery,” Stevenson says. “Because we never dealt with that evil, I don’t think slavery ended in 1865, it just evolved.”
There was a naïve temptation in 2008 to think the election of Barack Obama signaled a post-racial epoch in American history.
In actuality, American racism lurked beneath the surface during the Obama years and often gurgled through the sewer grate as African Americans continued to die openly in confrontations with white cops, or die mysteriously in dark prisons. “Black Lives Matter,” a movement aimed at protesting the systematic lack of justice for persons of color, was dismissed as dangerous militancy. White persons who tell you they don’t have a racist bone in their bodies would whisper among themselves that Michelle Obama looked like monkey. White GOP politicians in Congress, anxious lest the black President appear to be an effective leader, coalesced to block Obama’s programs and nominations. Donald Trump, then a shady self-promoter and quirky television personality (described by the New York Daily News as a clown), said he had proof Obama was born in Kenya and was constitutionally ineligible to be president.
If American racism hadn’t been lurking so breathlessly in the sewers for the eight years of Obama’s presidency, it wouldn’t have burst forth like projectile diarrhea to support Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign – a slogan to declare his intention to rescue America from the Obama years.
Trump’s Electoral College victory was not due entirely to racism, of course, and had there been no Electoral College he would have lost the election by 2.8 million votes.
But a racist and xenophobic bloc in the U.S., undergirded by an intransigent syndicate of Republican reactionaries in Congress, backed Trump’s bigoted policies. Even before he was inaugurated, Trump declared a ban on the immigration of persons from Muslim countries. He began to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border to discourage immigrants and asylum-seekers from crossing the border. He established a blanket policy of separating immigrant children from their parents and, when challenged, lied, and said Obama started it. He is now detaining thousands of brown people in centers that can only be described as concentration camps, many of which do not provide basic necessities of survival such as toothbrushes, soap, and blankets. When Nazis and Ku Klux Klan white supremacists rioted in Charlottesville, he described some of them “as very fine people.” And he literally wraps himself in the American flag, embracing Old Glory with an orgiastic smirk.
Future generations will undoubtedly look back on the Trump years as a fleeting clown show, a political aberration. His racism is just part of his unhinged personality but so far his base – estimated at 30 to 40 percent of voters in polls – continues to embrace him as doltishly as he embraces the flag. It is enough for them that he promises to protect then from encroaching black and brown people and Muslims and they are willing to overlook the fact that 22 women have accused him of sexual assault, that he is a chronic and perhaps pathological liar, that he doesn’t pay his creditors, that he hides his tax returns behind a web of secrecy. Just how much longer his base will believe his claims that these realities are “fake news” remains to be seen.
Perhaps one of the reasons his base adores Trump is that they mistook the Obamas’ view of America as unpatriotic. Michelle Obama, in an unguarded moment during the 2008 campaign, said, “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.” President Obama sought to acknowledge the injustices persons of color face in the U.S. and, in statements that alarmed the Trump base, called for increased controls on gun ownership. But, obviously, the thing about the Obamas that seemed most un-American to Trump’s base was the content of their character and the color of their skin.
Fired by a patriotic zeal that is fueled by an international surge toward xenophobic Nationalism, his base seems willing to allow Trump unlimited license so long as he maintains America’s historic bigotry. So long as he “Makes America Great Again.”
As Independence Day 2019 approaches, I think I will be celebrating not what America has been historically, or what it is now, but what it could be if all of us live up to the American ideals of justice for all.
Love of one’s country is an honorable thing, especially when one loves it enough to see its flaws and want to correct them. This is the right of all Americans.
And love of one’s country is enhanced when it includes an understanding that citizens of other nations are entitled to a patriotic fervor based on their own quest for freedom, opportunity, and justice.
So, thank you, Mr. Berlin, for the stirring strains of God bless America.
But as we celebrate our nation’s untidy birth, let us also stand and sing the more inclusive hymn written by Lloyd Stone in 1934 and supplemented by Georgia Harkness in 1864:
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.
May truth and freedom come to every nation;
may peace abound where strife has raged so long;
that each may seek to love and build together,
a world united, righting every wrong;
a world united in its love for freedom,
proclaiming peace together in one song.