Diversity 101: “What is America to me?”

The 1945 song “The House I Live In (That's America to Me)” offered a strong affirmation of democracy and American values at a pivotal point in the nation’s history, and its message resonates with equal potency in today’s tense social and political climate.

Made popular by Frank Sinatra, it described a hopeful, idealized, multicultural America at a time when the U. S. Army and the country were still racially segregated. Partly because of the timing of its release and partly because it asked a simple but profound question — “What is America to me?” — the song became an anthem of sorts, and a tribute to the men and women who were fighting to keep America safe during a time of social and economic instability, turbulence and terror.

The question “What is America to me?” evoked strong feelings of nationalism and devotion to American values, especially at a time when, thousands of miles away in forests and swamps, Americans were dying to protect the way of life described by the song. And while there are several versions of the song, Sinatra’s has a special impact because he, as a descendant of Italian immigrants, connected it to his family’s deep love for this country.

columbiaSinatra felt such a connection with the song that he starred in a short movie of the same name, which was both a vehicle to dramatize the song, as well as a platform for a powerful message about diversity and religious intolerance.

In the movie, after preventing a mob-like group of young boys from attacking another boy because his religion was different from theirs, Sinatra takes a strong stand against bigotry and fortolerance. He punctuates his message with the song: "The House I Live In (That's America To Me)."

The song opens with the question: What is America to me? The lyrical response seems simple: a map, a flag, a plot of earth, the grocer and the butcher, the street, the place I work, the children in the playground. These simple, tangible things recall warm memories, the comfort of home, and a sense of belonging. And it becomes clear that the “house” is really America itself. But the song goes much deeper than mundane snapshots of a simple life when it connects the “house” that is America to a set of intangible values like democracy, freedom and equality that represent the core of the nation. And even though the song was written years before the Supreme Court desegregated American schools in its Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, the song explicitly celebrates racial equality. In the original version, it does so in the line: “The house I live in, my neighbors white and black.” In the 1945 version sung by Sinatra, the lyrics are: “All races and religions, that's America to me.” It is disappointing that line was deleted from the song when Sinatra sang it in the movie.

frankrossThinking about this song has reminded me how much I believe in democracy, and how much I depend on it to protect me and the life I live — a life built around a set of freedoms that are guaranteed by our Constitution. I believe in America, but I also believe that America is still in the process of becomingAmerica; we’re not there yet, and perhaps those who framed the Constitution never expected us to arrive at a final destination, because whatever America is, it is not static or fixed. If we accept that becomingAmerica is an ongoing process, we must also accept that becoming American is also a difficult ongoing process because democracy is hard on people; it is an implacable and demanding value system. And it requires hard work to achieve.

Democracy constantly reminds Americans that freedom is not easy, and freedom is not free. In fact, the price of freedom is quite high. And sometimes, according to psychologist Gordon Allport, people want to escape from freedom because, as he wrote, “democracy we now realize places a heavy burden upon the personality, sometimes too great to bear. The maturely democratic person must possess subtle virtues and capacities; an ability to think rationally about causes and effects, an ability to form properly differentiated categories in respect to ethnic groups and their traits, a willingness toward freedom to others, and a capacity to employ it constructively for oneself. All these qualities are difficult to achieve and maintain. … It is easier to ‘escape from freedom.’”

But Americans can’t really escape from the demands of freedom, because that pesky Constitution is a reminder of what the country stands for, and if that were not enough, there’s the Pledge of Allegiance, which many adults have internalized and which is recited daily by American children, highlighting the ideas of liberty and justice for all Americans. There is no escape from this, either. There is also no escape from the belief in American exceptionalism, because it is now an integral part of how we define America, and how Americans choose to see themselves. But how can a country be exceptionalif it doesn’t live up to its own ideals? For example, most of us would agree with Paul Kivel that racism “… is fundamentally undemocratic and makes a travesty of our democratic ideals.” So how can Americans beexceptional if they close their eyes or turn away from evidence of pervasive racism and discrimination, which is often tolerated and increasingly angry, public, loud, and dangerous, and which frequently operates openly and fearlessly with impunity?

Perhaps, as a nation, we need to ask the same question Sinatra asked in 1945: “What is America to me?”  But we need to be prepared for the answer, even if it makes us uneasy.

Thinking about Sinatra’s song made me think about the country at this particular moment in time, and the values we pledge to support and live by every day in schools and at public events. I began to wonder if for some, our pledge to our core values has become a rote gesture, a practice that has devolved into an empty, meaningless ritual. Do we think about what it means when we say “one country, under God, with liberty and justice for all”? How often do we stop and think about the words and the hard-fought American values they convey? Have we hollowed out these values, leaving nothing but dry husks behind? And why is it considered an affront when a naturalized citizen has such reverence for the Constitution that he carries a tattered copy with him always, and can memorize it by heart? Why is he an anomaly? How often do we think about democracy? I mean really think about it? Or does democracy mean little more to us than a flashy — perhaps fading — billboard advertising “America” to outsiders? If democracy has become no more than a façade, like a Hollywood set, what does this mean?

Although we live in a country that separates church and state, the idea of democracy is kind of sacred to us, and our constitutionally guaranteed rights are kind of sacred, too. Recently, some have argued that we need to “take our country back,” and perhaps that is what we have to do. But we need to “take our country back” to the values that are supposed to drive us; to the values of liberty and justice for all that we are pledged to uphold. Yes, let’s take our country back.  

america me

“The House I Live In (That’s America to Me)”

Words by Lewis Allan
Music by Earl Robinson

What is America to me?
A name, a map, or a flag I see?
A certain word, democracy?
What is America to me?

The house I live in
A plot of earth, the street
The grocer and the butcher
Or the people that I meet
The children in the playground
The faces that I see
All races and religions
That’s America to me

The place I work in
The worker by my side
The little town the city
Where my people lived and died
The howdy and the handshake
The air a feeling free
And the right to speak your mind out
That’s America to me

The things I see about me
The big things and the small
The little corner newsstand
Or the house a mile tall
The wedding and the churchyard
The laughter and the tears
The dream that’s been a growing
For more than two hundred years

The town I live in
The street, the house, the room
The pavement of the city
Or a garden all in bloom
The church the school the clubhouse
The million lights I see
Especially the people
That’s America to me