America is a complicated place in practice. And in theory, it may be an impossibility. Yet, here it is, enduring while constantly adapting. Here is something about America that cannot be said about any other place in human history: Every individual who comes to America seeking America has bought into the theory that people can live free among others who are perhaps different, yet just as free, and we can all govern ourselves. That’s why they keep coming. Even those who came involuntarily have agreed to the theory.
In 1938, hard times for most everybody in America, Langston Hughes wrote a poem that is at turns cynical yet hopeful, angry yet filled with anticipation of happiness. By his exhortation [to whom? God? The Government? Some other invisible force?] to “let America be America again,” Hughes’ narrator implicitly recognizes the validity of the theoretical America while at the same time suggesting that the practical America has worked and will work in the future.
What has America meant to me and my family? I reiterate what I wrote a year ago:
A lot of Americans are related to signers of the Declaration of Independence, and many more who are not claim to be. In any event that’s not what’s really important. What’s really important is the fact that all Americans are related to people who had the fortitude to come to this continent seeking freedom, whether they came 300 years ago or three weeks ago. And no, I haven’t forgotten that despite the Declaration’s assertion that all men are created equal, that the writers of that sentence were aware that some on this continent were at that point in bondage. I’m related to to those who were in bondage as well as those who held them there. That’s the story of America. But the essential part of the story of America is that unlike any other society that has existed on Earth, America is constantly fulfilling its promise. Those who were in involuntary servitude are no longer, not because some superior force from outside liberated them, but because Americans themselves corrected the nation’s moral compass. That’s what happens every day in this country: we continue to fulfill our promise as a nation.
For me to be an American, is to be the descendant of both slaves and slave owners. It means to have sprung from the root of those of many hues who’d dreamt the dreams of freedom. Hughes describes those people:
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home–
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Hughes’ narrator says that for him, “America never was America.” Yet, for me, America has been America many times over. And for my family, it is plain that America continues to adapt to fulfill make theory into reality. For example, my parents both were born into poverty just 70 years after the Emancipation Proclamation–the span of a human lifetime after bondage. Today, not much longer than those seventy years, they have postgraduate education, have held white collar jobs all of their adult lives, have become property owners, sent four children to college, and contribute in many ways to their church and community.
Only in America . . . .
But do I not understand that there those for whom America has yet to be America? Certainly, that’s true. But only in America, could one say with confidence the words of Hughes’ narrator: America will be!
Only in America . . . .
July 2, 2007 Monday at 3:20 am