By Siegrid Raible

I have been thinking lately about my country, America, and what it means to be an American. I was born in Brooklyn, New York, sixty-six years ago. I am a first generation American who hadn’t really devoted much time to thinking about what it meant to be an American. I took it for granted that I lived in this country, “the home of the brave and land of the free.” Well, over the last two years I have given much more thought to America and what it means to be an American.

I started thinking about the ideals that bind me to my fellow Americans … the truths that we hold self-evident … the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. These ideals are embodied in the guidelines that govern us … our Constitution. The framers of our Constitution understood that being imperfect creatures we needed a document whose legal framework would enable us to form an ever more perfect union. A union where the rights of blacks and women would be one day embedded in amendments to the Constitution. A more perfect union where our highest court extended, not that long ago, to same sex couples the right to marry. And, I hope that one day in the future we will grant migrants and refugees the same human rights embodied in our Constitution. But more than a legal framework, America is an idea; an ideal embodied by Lady Liberty standing proud in New York’s harbor, her lamp raised high, a beacon to the world. Do we still share that image or believe in the idea and ideals envisioned by our founders?

The other day the TV was on and I was listening to coverage of Aretha Franklin’s passing. At one point the commentator played America the Beautiful which Ms. Franklin performed at Barak Obama’s inauguration in 2009. I stopped what I was doing and was struck by the beauty of the song. I decided to look into the history of the words and music. It turns out that the words were written by a woman, Katharine Lee Bates, a 33 year old English professor at Wellesley College, who on a journey cross-country in 1893 was inspired by America’s beauty to write a poem about her wonders. The music was arranged by Samuel A. Ward, a church organist and choirmaster at Grace Episcopal Church in Newark, New Jersey. Published in 1910 with some minor word changes, America the Beautiful, an ode to this country’s grandeur was considered on and off through the years as a possible national hymn or replacement to our current national anthem.

Ms. Bates in a few lines movingly captures the beauty of America … her natural wonders, her brotherhood, her ability to “mend” her flaws, her love of liberty and the law. Written more than a century ago can we say it any better today?

Then I started to think of my younger self and wandered back to the late1960s and Simon & Garfunkel’s America. A different time for sure; the first generation to come of age after World War II. In Paul Simon’s America written 70 odd years after Katharine Lee Bates penned her poem we find a different America and a different American. This American is also on a journey but he’s lost and empty and aching and he doesn’t know why … “counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike” he says “they’ve all come to look for America.” This is a young wistful American in search of an identity.

I recently came across a poem by Pauli Murray, a lawyer, poet, ordained minister and civil rights activist who died in 1985. Around the same time Paul Simon wrote America she wrote Prophecy, a poem proclaiming her faith in a new American. She is “the child of kings and serfs, freemen and slaves, having neither superiors nor inferiors, progeny of all colors, all cultures, all systems, all beliefs.” This is the America I believe in. The America where a black woman born in 1910 was able to overcome the prejudices of its time … a time when women would not gain the right to vote until 1920; a time when women were not ordained in any ministry; a time when black women were not recognized by the 1960s civil rights movement.

Now some sixty odd years into my journey through life in today’s America, I ask myself who are we and where are we going? Our nation is still blessed with spacious skies, amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties. But the ideals, the threads that bind us seem to be fraying. We seem to be overcome with anger; with fear of the stranger; interested only in our own tribal self-interests. Our baser selves seem to have surfaced in our political discourse and found their way into our digital public square. So the answer to who we are and where we are going hangs on whether we can summon our better angels and find those common shared beliefs which will enable us to bridge our many differences. If we can do this, I believe we will find a path forward and the experiment in American democracy will continue for many years into the future and we too will overcome the prejudices of our time.

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