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 fully what Samuel Francis Smith was thinking when he composed these words. For the words of another, whose mind and heart I cannot know completely, always necessarily mean more than my interpretation. Nevertheless, the truth of a text, the wisdom of a word lies not only in the author’s meaning, but also in my understanding.
And I sing, “My country, ‘tis of thee”, bittersweetly. For freedom’s dream is not yet realized.
Langston Hughes 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 don’t know fully what Hughes was thinking when he penned these words. However, as I interpret him, he speaks lovingly and longingly of a past day when he wishes the American ideal had been reached; yet also angrily, for the dream remains unrealized.
Hughes’s poem is a stern polemic, arguing that nostalgia for a past golden age is naïve idealization. Yet this is more than bitter diatribe. It is a call to action to make real the dream.
Hughes’s audience? The disenfranchised of his day: “the poor white…the Negro…the red man…the immigrant,” and later, “the farmer” and “the worker.” Hughes, calling all to fulfill America’s promise, dares to speak for all: “I swear this oath – America will be!”
Through the lenses of song and poetry, I behold an America not fully 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 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 others. All others. Even those with whom I disagree; speaking my truth with integrity and listening, respecting their human dignity. Am I always successful? No. Nevertheless, I strive to be faithful. And, in this, always 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.
© 2022 PRA
 From America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee) (1831); words by Samuel Francis Smith (1808-1895)
 From Let America Be America Again (1935); word by James Mercer Langston Hughes (1901-1967)
 Words (1922) by Evelyn Atwater Cummins (1891-1971)