Every year on the 4th of July, a lot of Christian blogs express mixed emotions about the holiday. I understand where they’re coming from. Declaring Jesus as Lord and pledging allegiance to a flag are competing claims on our loyalty. One of our most quintessentially American writers, Mark Twain, once wrote that “patriotism is the refuge of scoundrels.” It’s true that politicians wrap themselves in the flag most tightly when they need to cover up their lack of real ideas. But it’s also true that Mark Twain is part of what Americans celebrate when they’re patriotic about our country. His novel Huckleberry Finn is part of what makes America America. So instead of talking about all of America’s shortcomings, whether people worship the flag too much, whether the Revolutionary War was just about rich people not wanting to pay their taxes, etc, I wanted to write about what I celebrate today when I celebrate America. And I wanted to share one of the most patriotic poems that’s ever been written: “I Too Sing America” by the gay black poet Langston Hughes without whom America could not be America.
I too sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am,
And be ashamed —
I, too, am America.
It’s true that we killed off most of the Indians who lived here before. It’s also true that we had slavery and segregation for most of our history. It could be argued that we’ve fought wars for bad reasons and treated other countries arrogantly. But something about America made Langston Hughes want to sing. He saw enough beauty in the values that we profess that it was worth fighting to get a place at the American dinner table.
What Langston Hughes did as a poet and civil rights crusader epitomizes to me what’s great about America. As much as I respect the military folks I’ve been getting to know at my church, having a strong military is not what’s unique about America. The Soviet Union had a fierce military before they collapsed. Hitler had an amazing military. We should definitely celebrate the dedication of those who put themselves in harm’s way to defend America, but we should also celebrate the dedication of those who have fought tooth and nail throughout our nation’s history to create a society worth defending.
What made Langston Hughes want to sing about America is what we say we believe as Americans: “that all men are created equal.” And what has allowed America to fulfill its professed raison d’être are the Americans who have refused to settle for empty lip service and politician’s slogans but have demanded that American society be structured in such a way so that everybody has a fair chance at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
We can debate about the details. Should civilian blue-collar workers be able to support their families on a single income so that one parent can stay home with the kids? Is it right to raise taxes if you want public school classrooms with 15 kids per teacher instead of 30? Regardless of where you come down in these debates, when you celebrate America today, you’re celebrating more than just the men in tights and whigs who wrote our Constitution. You’re celebrating Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Henry Thoreau, Emma Goldman, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Sandra Cisneros, Woody Guthrie, Dorothy Day, Frances Willard, and a whole lot of other people who were widely hated and controversial in their time for fighting to create an America worth defending. America is only as good as the people who force us to live up to our promises. That is the America for which I sing.