Every Fourth of July, I find myself singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” several times. Sure, it honors our nation, and I’m grateful to live in the land of the free and the home of the brave, and I appreciate those who keep it so. But lyrics that encourage us to glorify war, what with ramparts streaming and rockets glaring and bombs bursting through the night, do not resonate with me. I’d prefer we Americans be identified with something less pompous.
This song, our national anthem, wasn’t the favorite patriotic song in the U.S. when in 1931, Congress proclaimed it as the official anthem. A much better tribute that begins, “O beautiful, for spacious skies,” had long been the real voice of our homeland. That song, “America, the Beautiful,” with its humble prayer for grace and brotherhood, paired with a lovely noble tune, is refreshingly unpretentious.
This year, I found myself celebrating the holiday with groups of friends and colleagues (mostly professional musicians) who are prone to break into song spontaneously, as in a Broadway musical. We belted out the national anthem many times as a gesture of honor and solidarity with all Americans. I’ll admit that the tune is fun to sing, and together we created some incredible harmonies and a luscious vocal blend. I beamed gladly to share in such an inspiring moment. I even happened to shed a little tear — flowing from a heart of pride, no doubt, but chiefly a tear of grief, not joy.
Born an optimist yet ever a cynic, I guess I haven’t given up on America, after all. We don’t need to make our nation great again, because it’s already great, but we do need to fix things. As one friend commented, “Today, I celebrate the part of Independence Day in which the people who didn’t like their government decided to change it. Here’s to those who fight for change!” And so, I’m choosing to speak out about this for the first time.
Actually, I was in Boston on the Fourth of July. Walking the Freedom Trail, visiting historic sites and old cemeteries, worshiping in the Old North Church of Paul Revere fame, and recalling the struggles of colonial America, I paid homage to the heroes of the Revolution — some of the great statesmen, but most of whom were humble citizens like you and me. They didn’t shrink when duty called. I imagine that their aspirations were singular, their dedication unwavering, and their passions strong. Their legacy has become our good fortune.
I wonder what they would think of us now.
Our national life is in chaos. We have fallen into disunity and distrust, fractured and confused and sometimes hopeless, often unwilling to place community before self. As our leaders falter, our journey has become wearisome and bleak, our efforts futile. If we haven’t completely lost our way yet, we’ve wandered down an uncertain path. Charting a better course for a better life for all seems to be an elusive dream.
Originally erected to commemorate the abolition of slavery, the Statue of Liberty came to symbolize our nation’s hospitality to everyone, a founding virtue that for countless generations built and strengthened our society. We chose to welcome, embrace, adopt, and uplift people of many origins, many languages, many colors, many beliefs, and many songs, strangers united in a new homeland.
Pondering Lady Liberty, I feel sad that we dishonor her and our legacy by the inhumane ways we treat each other. We profess to seek the common good, yet we forget the Golden Rule. Still, we yearn desperately to be valued and respected by one another. Are we not all members of one human family? All created equal?
From childhood, I recall singing and truly believing the great song “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” from the last five lines of the famous sonnet “The New Colossus” penned by Emma Lazarus in 1883, which is mounted in bronze at the Statue of Liberty.
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Unless your ancestors were those remarkable Indigenous Peoples who originally inhabited, hunted, tilled, and fought for this land, we all are immigrants. We all were once tired, poor, and yearning to be free. Some sought prosperity, and some sought sanctuary. Even today, we still yearn to be free from hatred and injustice, to be free to live and love in peace, to enjoy the rights and the dignity that all human beings want and deserve.
Singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” caused me to wonder whether, despite divisions, we actually have the grace and courage to trust each other, and with faith in a bright future, to strive together again toward common hopes and aspirations. Those are things that once made us great. Perhaps this is a tall order, but at the very least, we can be brave enough to pledge liberty and justice for all people. This is my American Dream.