04 July 2010

Who Is This America?

Fourth of July.

In my neighborhood, I can tell it's here by the random small explosions that start to occur on the nights starting at the end of June. Some of the explosions are attached to colorful lights; others are merely sound.

It seems odd that a celebration of national independence would boil down to gunpowder. But then, the United States was born of a violent resistance, and it seems to have maintained that element of its identity in the following generations. Of course there are political and social elements of identity as well, and those freedoms of speech, assembly, religion. Or as President Franklin D. Roosevelt put it, the four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, freedom from fear.

Freedom from fear? Recently it seems government policy has been instead to instill fear. From the duct-tape defense against terrorist missiles to spying mail carriers to toxic Chinese products to illegal immigrants, officials keep up a litany of threats.

Who is this America that sees threats in every shadow? It's not where I choose to live.

My America is flawed, to be sure, but more importantly it has a progressive past and an optimistic future. It's a nation founded on the ideals of equality and opportunity (though we're still struggling to apply those ideals to everyone). It's a nation whose diversity of thought, culture, opinion, and geography makes it stronger. It's a nation in which, sometimes after painful struggle, we do the right thing: extending equality, promoting justice under the law, reining in the excesses of individuals and corporations. Though sometimes the progress is painfully slow, and I grow frustrated.

The United States is huge, often lumbering, sometimes blundering. In their song "Who is this America Dem Speak of Today?" New York-based Afrobeat ensemble Antibalas sing:

One flag is not enough for this many people ...
this is no one community
No one family-o.

Yet at least for the time being, we seem stuck with each other.

Antibalas has found a way to make multiculturalism work, one of many examples of a new American identity that fuses traditions such as free speech and protest songs with immigrant perspectives and music. LA-based Ozomatli bring the same spirit with a Latino perspective. Originally formed to play a labor protest gig, Ozomatli has become hugely popular for their spirited live shows while persistently questioning injustice and championing the weak.

Ozomatli even got some love from the US embassy in Nepal during a tour there. The embassy hailed the band's work, saying: "Ozomatli is living proof that diverse backgrounds make a stronger and more prosperous whole. Ozomatli’s nine members are committed to addressing social issues of local, national, and international importance and they use the power of their own diversity to achieve this."

These bands and others like them speak to my identity as a US citizen. The nation is changing, inevitably, with technology, immigration, climate change, and social/mental/spiritual progress. I'll probably watch the fireworks tonight, but I'll be listening to the music of American change every day. Perhaps one day our nation won't be defined chiefly with "bombs bursting in air."

Perhaps we'll even change our national anthem from the current war hymn to something that celebrates the country though soulful gratitude, ala Ray Charles:

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