Monday, February 11, 2013

Whose America is this Anyway?


I wasn't a baseball fan when I was younger so this went way over my head when I was 11-12 years old. 

But what I do remember was how incensed by 6th grade teacher was at Jose Feliciano's rendition of the 'Star-Spangled' banner. It was, to him, the desecration of the song and he thought it was, in his words, 'just terrible'. And he wasn't the only one. It was a BIG deal!

I think it's beautiful!

I also think whether it is Whitney Houston, Marvin Gaye or Alicia Keyes - Jose Feciano - it gives rise to a fundamental question that we have yet to answer: just who does America belong to anyway?

These different arrangements, all are artistic expressions of different experiences brought to a song that has come to express a love of country and a reverence for its birth and endurance. But does that mean that if you share those feelings the song has to be sung in the same way? In other words, if you are white, when I sing the national anthem MUST I sing it in a way that expresses your feelings or experience. Does it mean my culture and experience are irrelevant? Does it mean that its only legitimate if its sung from the perspective of the 'dominant' culture?

If there is a way to be 'American', what is that 'way'? And what does it say about those whose culture and experience in this country doesn't comport with those of another group? Is Jose Feliciano's version, less legitimate than Whitney's, or Marvin's, or the 'Up With People' (you had to have been there)?

This is the basic question we're struggling with, as our country grows more diverse. As more and more, people of color assume positions of power in government, in business and in other areas previously closed to them. It's the question that needs to be wrestled with as we tackle the issue of a comprehensive immigration policy - who 'owns' America? And who has to conform to what in order to be an American?

It's the question of Black History Month. Whose history has to be marginalized, or forgotten in order for the 'American' story to be told? And if I must sublimate the history of my people in this country, which one of your ancestors do we need to forget?

If Jose, Whitney and Marvin all have renditions which express their understanding of  America in all of its richness and realness, then the song has texture and meaning for all of us. 

If there's only one way to sing it, then it's just a song. Then what does that make America?

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