THE AMERICAN DREAM
What does the 4th of July represent, for you? Does it feel different now than it did when you were a kid? What does “freedom” mean? How many ways are there to be independent? What makes a nation great? What makes a people good? How do you define patriotism? How can you love your country and love your enemies? How can you raise the flag and love beyond its walls?
I kicked off this 4th of July morning blasting Springsteen’s Born In the U.S.A. in our living room. It’s a song that has been misunderstood, to say the least, for 35 years. Some say it’s unpatriotic, anti-American. It is neither. It’s about a young man sent “to go and kill the yellow man” in Vietnam. When he comes home from the war, he can’t find a job. The country he fought for doesn’t seem concerned with fighting for him now. He’s born in the United States of America. He kills for the United States of America. And then he wakes up, painfully, to realize that the American dream is just that — a dream.
When the song ended, I pulled up Bruce & the E Street Band’s moving performance of American Skin (41 Shots) live at Madison Square Garden. The song is about a young black man who was shot (41 times) by the cops. He was unarmed. I’d heard the song dozens of times. But as I listened this morning with my wife and our three young children all around me, I was struck, in a new way, by the words that Lena (the mother figure in the song) says to her son:
Lena gets her son ready for school
She says, “On these streets, Charles
You’ve got to understand the rules
If an officer stops you, promise me you’ll always be polite
And that you’ll never ever run away
Promise Mama you’ll keep your hands in sight”
As I listened, I looked at each of my children — my wife was on the floor changing the baby’s diaper; the 2 year-old was sitting on the steps; the 4 year-old was laying on the couch. And all I could think about was how much heavier these words would weigh upon me if my children weren’t white…
I thought back to episode 15 of my podcast (Song & Story), the episode titled The Brother On the Outside. It focuses on singer-songwriter Ike Ndolo‘s experiences as a black kid growing up in a white community. Our conversation centered around Ike’s powerful song Your Table, which begins with the words:
The only black family in the white church
Pops went to Mass in some dope shirts
Mama made sure we never missed a thing
Blue-eyed Jesus looking down on me
Brown skin always seemed to be the enemy
Well, I don’t know where I fit in
Ike was graciously open and vulnerable with me in our conversation. He shared his experiences of being racially profiled by strangers, by cops, by classmates, by teachers. It was edifying for me to hear his story. Because I only know what it’s like to be white in America. And everyone else — whatever color they are — they only really know what it’s like to be that in America. While it is a reality too often downplayed or denied in our discourse, Springsteen’s truth weighs heavier for some: You can get killed just for living in your American skin.
That Vietnam vet from Born in the U.S.A., that character who returns home to find that there isn’t much left for him — I’ve always assumed he was white. What if he’s not? What if he’s any other color? How does the song change? How does that story end?
One of the questions I asked at the beginning of this piece is actually a lyric from an unreleased song of mine, titled Make An Honest Stand. This is its verse, its fuller context:
In a world where fools and cynics
Try to bar the golden door
To keep out the huddled masses
The tired and the poor
Where the homeless long for shelter
From the chaos of the squall
How can I raise the flag
And love beyond its walls?
My church asserts: “The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin.” Yet so many in my church and so many in the larger public square, who themselves see America as the greatest and the most prosperous of all nations, seem compelled, for whatever reason, to pull up the “welcome” mat, to turn off the porch light, to bar the golden door, to keep out the huddled masses, the tired, and the poor.
But this is what it looks like when we do that. This is what it looks like when The American Dream dies:
I am a father of three young children. This image has been burned onto my heart. I’ve been staring at it all week in my head. And as I listened this morning to Springsteen’s American Skin, a song written in the wake of a very different tragedy, I couldn’t help but think of this young father and his baby girl while hearing these words:
41 shots, and we’ll take that ride
‘Cross this bloody river to the other side
41 shots, I got my boots caked with this mud
We’re baptized in these waters
And in each other’s blood
The 4th of July. Freedom. Independence. Patriotism. The American Dream. If we can’t actually actively love beyond the walls of our homes, beyond the shade of our skin tones, beyond the borders of our country, what does any of it mean?
Today I’m thankful for all the freedoms I’ve enjoyed and all the freedoms I’ve taken for granted in my life. And now I pray for a new kind: freedom from the fear of being baptized in the waters of suffering, solidarity, self-gift, and in my neighbor’s blood. It’s the only way to keep the dream alive.