Voice of My Beautiful Country

What you’re listening to is my love song to America; my latest attempt to express how I feel about living in this country as a person of color. It had its germination over three years ago when, during an interview in Russia, the interviewer referred to me as an American. I started to interrupt her, to tell her she was mistaken. But I caught myself and was extremely surprised and dismayed to discover that I didn’t feel like an American. The rest of the interview I don’t remember because I was too focused on this startling and disturbing discovery.

On the flight from Moscow, I felt anxious to get back home. Yes, ‘home’. And yet, I had nearly corrected the Russian interviewer when she called me American! Why? I didn’t know, but I wanted to find out.

Flying across the Atlantic, I thought about how, from the time I was a very young child, I had always loved singing “America the Beautiful”, “God Bless America” and how my heart always swelled with pride, how I always teared up whenever I heard the beginning strains of the “National Anthem”. I loved these songs, loved singing them. I loved my home – the dirt and the sky and the trees and the grass and bugs of my home. I loved the people in it, the way we walked and talked and interacted. I loved the way things are done here, problematic though they may sometimes be. I tried to imagine living permanently in another country – and couldn’t. I loved this land! So why didn’t I feel like I was an American?

For the next few weeks I puzzled over it, analyzing every little thing I felt. I dug deep. And this is what I came up with:

Beautiful as those songs are, when I learned them as a child, the black community was still living under Jim Crow laws. Seating was segregated at theatres. There were certain stores in town that black folks simply could not enter. My siblings and I went to segregated schools where the books, desks, chairs, tables, lunch trays and playground equipment were never new, always hand-me-downs from the all white schools. My parents taught at those schools and, rather than being bitter, we were raised to be proud, stand tall, speak clearly, look others in the eye and be true & respectful to ourselves and everyone we met, regardless of their color.

Even at such a young age, however, I sensed on a fundamental level that there was a disconnect between the patriotic songs I loved to sing, the Pledge of Allegiance I took pleasure in memorizing and repeating every day and the humiliating, not-quite-a-citizen experiences that black folks were enduring on a daily basis. For instance…

One year, my mother and father, along with about 5 other black couples, attempted to integrate the segregated lunch counters in my hometown, Warrenton, Va. My parents were assigned to Frost’s Diner on the by-pass. On the door of that establishment was a sign that read, “No Dogs. No Niggers”.

In a manner of speaking, my parents were successful that night. They went into the diner, ordered dinner (though they were never served) and left with only verbal insults ringing in their ears as a warning. Later that year, however, as a result of this protest, my father was blacklisted – fired from his job as a teacher and unable to find employment anywhere in the county sufficient enough to support seven children and a wife. And they were considered the lucky ones. This is the kind of unspoken – yet very real – disconnection black families lived with day in and day out.

As children, we are hardly equipped with the verbal skills to express such a disconnection. But the disconnection lingers until one day, whoop! there it is. And you’re left with trying to figure out why you don’t feel the word ‘American’ has ever really applied to you.

We went to church. And there we listened to our pastor try to make sense of the inequality he and his entire congregation was faced with day after day, to instill in us joy and hope where there was adversity and sadness and grief. When the fourth of July fell near a Sunday, we opened our hymnals to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” or “America the Beautiful” or the “National Anthem” and we sang. We sang loud and long and clear and spirits soared at the prospect of God’s truth marching on. Our eyes misted over to think that God might shed his grace on us and crown his good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea. We adored the sentiments expressed in the National Anthem but felt excluded because the land of the free was not free for us and those in our homes who were brave enough to confront the Jim Crow laws risked their lives or their livelihoods in so doing. So we sang “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” in our churches, too, and at our schools and other community gatherings because that song spoke of our hopes, our situation. It came to be known as the “Black National Anthem”, and for good reason, though it, too, was exclusive in that it validated the daily struggle of black folks and gave us hope and encouragement when, oftentimes, nothing and nobody else would or could.

Music is a second language to me. From as far back as I can remember, when I couldn’t figure out a way to express whatever I was feeling, my emotions could always find their expression in music. So on the flight home, I wondered: Could I take the sentiments of these songs that had meant so much to me – that still mean so much to me – and re-frame them in a musical context that more accurately reflects the America I live in now? The America with which I more honestly identify? The America I love?

I was inspired to write a suite entitled “Voice of My Beautiful Country”, moving from sentiment to sentiment and utilizing American music: Jazz, Blues & Gospel. I use three movements: “America the Beautiful”, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and, the movement that has garnered the most attention and criticism, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” sung to the melody of the “National Anthem”. The title, “Voice of My Beautiful Country”, expresses for me the dichotomy and contradictions of being a person of color in America.

Voice of My Beautiful Country” is my love song to America – the land I love living in. I love singing this suite; it has given me room to feel the full spectrum of emotions I most strongly connect with – joy, pain, love, pride, sentiment, unity, hope – when I think of my family, my country and my national community. It has been a journey toward making peace with the contradictions that still exist within me when I think of my past, a conduit for hope when I think of the future and given me the freedom to finally feel like an American.