This Fourth of July I am returning to the wise words of my late friend Dr. Vincent Harding, the revered historian, theologian, social justice activist, and visionary who never lost sight of the “beloved community” his friend and colleague Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed our nation and world could become. In July 2012 on his 81st birthday Dr. Harding spoke at the National and Racial Healing Town Hall at a Children’s Defense Fund’s conference. He told us he believed America was a wounded nation, but despite so many years of struggle he remained convinced America could and must get better. He urged all of us to commit ourselves to healing America and making our country what it should be, and shared a line he had heard a West African poet recite: “‘I am a citizen of a country that does not yet exist.’”
The poet was speaking about his homeland, which was going through political turmoil on the road to independence, but my dear brother Vincent said it applied to our current spiritual and moral crisis in America: “We are citizens of a country that we still have to create—a just country, a compassionate country, a forgiving country, a multiracial, multi-religious country, a joyful country that cares about its children and about its elders, that cares about itself and about the world, that cares about what the Earth needs as well as what individual people need…I am, you are, a citizen of a country that does not yet exist, and that badly needs to exist.”
He drew a comparison to the words of the brilliant poet Langston Hughes in “Let America Be America Again.” That poem celebrates the poor, working class, and immigrant Americans from all backgrounds and colors who have always been the farmers, factory workers, and laborers on whose backs America was built, but who generation after generation have been “tangled in that ancient endless chain/Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!/Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!/Of work the men! Of take the pay!/Of owning everything for one’s own greed!” Vincent Harding quoted Hughes’s refrain, “America never was America to me,” and said: “We can always stop there and complain and complain and complain. ‘You’ve never been America to me.’ But remember, Langston did not stop there: ‘America, you’ve never been America to me. But I swear this oath—you will be!’ I want you, those who are not afraid to swear oaths, to swear that oath for yourself, for your children, and for your old uncle here. You will be, America. You will be what you could be. You will be what you should be, and I am going to give my life to the working for that.”
I swear this oath—you will be! We are in a moment when we are watching hollow promises about American greatness turn into an American nightmare. Instead of the vision of the Statue of Liberty welcoming the tired, the poor, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” and the “homeless, tempest-tost,” the picture of America today is the photograph of 23-month-old Angie Valeria Martinez Avalos, her body tucked inside her father’s shirt with her arm around his neck, drowned while trying to swim across the Rio Grande in desperation after attempting to seek asylum at the United States border. But millions of Americans agree this is not who we are—and we will refuse to let it be who we become.
On this Fourth of July we are very, very far from living up to America’s promise, but this barbaric and shameful moment in American “exceptionalism” and American leadership will not last forever. The need to change course, heal, and make America what it professes to be and the nation our children and grandchildren deserve is more urgent than ever. Those of us who share the vision for a just, compassionate, multiracial, joyful nation that cares for children and elders, itself and the rest of the world, and the needs of the Earth and the people who inhabit it must never stop working to make that America reality. We are citizens of a country that does not yet exist, but it is up to us to finally create it and make it a just and hopeful land for all.