- “Of Thee I Sing”: Contesting “America”
On 28 August 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., described a dream of racial equality “deeply rooted in the American dream.” King drew upon the Bible, the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address for the inspirational texts of his secular sermon, 1 but to express the substance of his dream, he turned to the lyrics of a song most of his audience had learned as schoolchildren. He asked his listeners to imagine a
day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning—“My country! ‘tis of thee; Sweet land of liberty; Of thee I sing; Land where my fathers died; Land of the pilgrims’ pride; From every mountainside; Let freedom ring.” And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. 2
King, like many before him, used the text of the song “America” to express the nation’s principles, possibilities and shortcomings. Better known today by its first line, “My country! ‘tis of thee,” “America” is among the oldest and most widely known American national songs, identified for over a century as “our national hymn” 3 and ritually performed in schoolrooms and patriotic ceremonies. As an ideological expression of national ideals and aspirations, “America” has been used in the civic training of children and the “Americanization” of immigrants, Native Americans, and others. “America” makes a first-person claim of identity and belonging on the part of its citizen singers. This is “my country,” its singer proclaims. [End Page 623]
But for some, the claim that this is “my country” has functioned as a premise from which the actual denial of the presumed entitlements of citizenship might be appealed. Since the song’s debut on 4 July 1831, “America” has been employed by social and political activists to question what it means to be an American and whether the country is, in fact, a land where freedom rings “from every mountainside.” Some have refused to sing the song or have sung it in protest rather than piety. “You have to be able to laugh to stand up and sing, ‘My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty,’” Malcolm X argued; “That’s a joke. And if you don’t laugh at it, it’ll crack you up.” 4 Others, including abolitionists, suffragists, temperance activists, and labor organizers, have written and performed alternate versions of the song that adapt the original lyrics to question rather than proclaim America’s achievement of its aspirations. Can a country that countenances slavery, disfranchisement, insobriety, or poverty, they ask, truly be deemed a “sweet land of liberty”?
King’s use of “America” unites these two divergent performative traditions and constructions of the song: in one, the song is regarded as the ultimate expression of American patriotism; in the other, it is a singularly important site for contesting the nation’s character, self-image and actions. When King dreamt aloud of a time when “America” might be sung with new meaning, he joined orators from Ida B. Wells to James Baldwin and performers from Marian Anderson to 2 Live Crew who have used the song “America” both to protest injustice and to express the hope that America may yet achieve those principles professed in the song that bears its name.
“America” has always been contested political territory. For much of the country’s history, it has been a locus for struggles to (re)define the national character, citizenry and mission and has served simultaneously and paradoxically as a text of identity and alienation, of belonging and exclusion. In this essay, I examine the distinct yet intertwined rhetorical traditions of the song “America,” beginning with its use in the nineteenth century construction of national identity through school music programs, civic ceremonies, and “Americanization” campaigns. Secondly, I discuss the use of the song, particularly in the second half of the nineteenth century, as a touchstone for political protest and parody. Finally, I discuss “America” as a central text in the twentieth century African American jeremiad, a utopian discourse in which the fulfillment of America’s covenant is imagined. [End Page 624]