I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear;
Those of mechanics—each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong;
The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat—the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck;
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench—the hatter singing as he stands;
The wood-cutter’s song—the ploughboy’s, on his way in the morning, or at the noon intermission, or at sundown;
The delicious singing of the mother—or of the young wife at work—or of the girl sewing or washing—Each singing what belongs to her, and to none else;
The day what belongs to the day—At night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.
— Walt Whitman
We heard America singing–for real–last Thursday at the Spring Concert at Lorelei’s school. I’ve
endured attended countless plays, pageants, and concerts in my 21 years of parenting, but this one stands out. In between renditions of our National Anthem and Yankee Doodle (that was Lorelei’s class) and other patriotic songs enthusiastically performed by cute kids and accompanied by hand gestures, we were treated to proclamations of the Gettysburg Address, the First Amendment to the Constitution, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, and other words that symbolize what America stands for.
“I’m American, you’re American!” sang the children, and they were the melting pot personified up on the stage. No one needs to preach diversity when you can see it right in front of you. There is no better explanation of what it means to be an American than to see the great-grandchildren of slaves standing on a stage with white kids whose ancestors probably landed two hundred years ago along with more recent arrivals from Asian and Latino countries, all of them smiling and singing in English “This land is my land.”
So with a happy tear in my eye I went on to my next engagement, a meeting of my book club at which we watched the famous movie adaptation of our most recent book, To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s so easy, watching this vivid reminder of the dark history of race relations in the South, to feel complacent about how far we’ve come. My older daughter attends college in Mobile, Alabama, and of course her classmates are as diverse as Lorelei’s are. Twenty years ago, the sight of an interracial couple walking down the streets of Knoxville would make you look again. No longer.
But the human heart is a dark and secret place, and prejudices still lurk there. All Tom Robinson’s troubles started, remember, when he walked past a white woman’s house. And look what happened to Trayvon Martin, who had the gall to “walk while black” through a mostly white neighborhood. That he had the legal right to be there, that he was actually a guest there, didn’t matter to a man who saw only the color of his skin and made predictable assumptions thereupon.
Prejudice against certain immigrant communities of the past, like the Irish and the Italians, may have died out, but there are new immigrants to take their place as the targets of our collective suspicion. Just yesterday I heard someone talking about “all these people with their strange religions” coming in and changing our country which was “founded upon Christian principles.” Religious freedom is one of the bedrocks upon which this nation was founded, actually. And what is the Number One Christian Principle if it’s not “Love one another”?
At the end of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout walks Boo Radley (surely the personification of the hated and feared “other”) back to his house. She stands on his porch and realizes that she had “never seen [the] neighborhood from this angle . . . [Atticus] said you never really knew a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.” Later that evening she says of a character in a book Atticus is reading to her: “He hadn’t done any of those things . . . Atticus, he was real nice . . . ” and he replies, “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”