When I was eight years old, I was a very different person than I am now. I had faith and patriotism in droves, and a comparatively small amount of body hair. Those situations have reversed for me now, and I find that I am most often ambivalent to my nation and its government (and skeptical in the extreme on the existence of anything “divine”), and I spend at least two hours a week scraping unwanted hair off of various unmentionable parts of my anatomy.
But when I was eight, I starred in a children’s play at my church (Lake Pointe Baptist Church, then in Rowlett, Texas). The title of that play was “Thankful To Be An American”. It was terrible. The very worst in Evangelical appropriation of nationalism towards the furtherance of its narrow and bigoted ideological agenda, wrapped in innocent sounding songs sung by fresh faced children who didn’t know any better.
Stay with me, this isn’t an anti-Christian rant, I promise!
I recently found some home movies of that performance, and my own solo, the title song, “I am Thankful to be an American”. It made me remember the way I felt then, at that age. And this Fourth of July, I am thinking where that all went. Am I still thankful to be an American?
I had a lot of difficulty answering that question. Afterall, I had the SCOTUS on my mind, and their abusive furtherance of the “Corporations are Persons” agenda with the recent Hobby Lobby debacle. And just this year I was let go from the rural Texas school district I substitute taught for because they found a dating site ad I had put up in which my same-sex orientation was apparent. Plus, I recently friended my teenage niece on Instagram, which is enough to make me feel quite strongly that maybe the founding fathers weren’t so wise with that whole “freedom of speech” thing (I kid).
My point is, there are a lot of things I don’t like that America does nowadays. And I think there are some major challenges we face, in terms of being on the “right side of history”. I think we are coming very close to becoming out and out villains on the world stage, and I think we have an over-bloated sense of entitlement and divine favor that is neither deserved nor earned.
So on this morning, on the annual remembrance of our nation’s birth, I still face the question, am I thankful to be an American?
I started off trying to think of good things about America. I’m definitely a fan of a lot we do. I think we have worked hard to provide a good standard of living, such that even the catastrophically poor are better off here than almost anywhere else in the world. I think we are making great strides in the realm of social justice, the recent victories for LGBT rights being of personal impact to me particularly. And I think, though it may come too late anyway, we’re at least now beginning to turn the tide on issues like climate change and sustainability.
I’ll save you, from here, the large pros and cons list I made, and skip ahead to the part where I figured it out. To do that, I need to post a video. It is a video (I hope!) all of you have seen before. It is the performance of Whitney Houston at the 1991 Superbowl in Florida. Go on, give it a watch.
This performance makes me cry every time I watch it. It makes me feel happy, and proud, and fierce all at the same time. And it wasn’t till I watched it today that I understood why I am proud to be an American.
I am proud to be an American because we have created a country in which the very best of Whitney Houston was not diminished or silenced by any other objection to who she was. Here was a woman of non-dominate ethnic descent, who came from poverty, who became a drug addict, and in no way conformed to the prevailing moral standards of her time, but whose voice we celebrated, whose talents we gave the stage they deserved.
It’s a funny thing, thinking that my reason to be proud is actually the source of much of my own frustration. It is, in fact, the source of frustration for opponents on both sides of the aisle, and of almost every rant on every 24-hour news network in the country. The frustrating question is why doesn’t who someone is impact the way we relate to the things they do?
Shouldn’t it matter that Steve Jobs developed the iPhone on LSD?
Shouldn’t it matter that RuPaul uses transphobic language?
Shouldn’t it matter that Donald Trump is a Birther with a bad toupee?
Shouldn’t it matter that Orson Scott Card has said homosexual children should be put in concentration camps?
And I think the answer is: maybe. But the wonderful thing about America, the infuriating, complicated, marvelous thing that came into being when those oft-misquoted founding fathers sat down and signed this grand experiment into being some 238 years ago today, was the possibility that the good things you did were not canceled out by the bad, or by the perceived content of your character, or by how far away from the prevailing notion of normal you might be, whether by gender, or race, or religious creed.
In America, we can do great things. And more than that, as a nation, we want those around us to surprise us, to subvert our expectations or blow us away. Just watch American Idol, or America’s Got Talent. You see it there. Those shows are shameless emotional manipulation, true. But what they are drawing on is our collective and fervent hope that the greatness inside each of us will be recognized, through the perilous fight against the complications that surround us, over the ramparts of prejudices held against us, and that the rockets of our troubled circumstances will only reveal in their red glow what we are most proud of in our hearts.
That star-spangled banner that is really the passion, and talent, and hope in our hearts, that we hail at the twilight, still stands when the dawn’s early light comes. There is no darkness in her life so deep that Whitney Houston’s voice does not shine through it. And that is America. That is what we made. We made a place where hope doesn’t die, where greatness can come from anyone, and where we search for those moments in our own lives and in the lives of those around us, and when we find them we defend them.
I am proud to be an American. Yep, it’s a mess. And we don’t clean up our mess as fast as I want us to mostly. And lots of times we make the wrong call, or we get caught up in our own system, or we let the really important things slip through the cracks. But for all of that mess, it’s a mess made because we did the right thing 238 years ago today. We chose hope, and we chose freedom, and we gave them a home in our hearts. And those things are alive and working even now, urging us to continue to grow and change and fight and live.
As the woman belts, that star-spangled banner does still wave, over the land of the free and the home of the brave, and because it does, greatness and goodness live on, unvanquished by any other condition of life or birth. So long as that is true, I echo my own words from more than twenty years in my past: I am thankful to be an American.
I’m also slightly aghast that I’m about to include video evidence of this performance on my public blog.
Ah well, allons y!