Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Aretha's "America" for a Patchwork America

It was amazing to see and hear Aretha Franklin, the 66-year-old Queen of Soul, the woman who sang "Respect" and "Chain of Fools," sing "America" during the inauguration ceremony today. As I watched and listened, I thought of how my mother might have reacted to Aretha's performance. I think quite possibly, as a classically trained musician, my mother would not have approved. I do not mean to cast aspersions on my mother, only to mark the change between generations, and the change I am relishing today.

My parents' America was most definitely a white America. Regardless of how open-minded and progressive and supportive they strove to be, they viewed colored people (the term we used then) as "other," and along with "other" were unspoken, powerful undertones: "less refined," "less well educated," "less advanced," "less capable," just less.

That was the America I grew up in. But the America I saw on the Washington mall today is a multi-America, a "patchwork" America, in which there are many varieties, all of us with so much to offer, all of us a gift, all of us precious and bright and capable and strong. A shift took place in the deep recesses of my mind and heart, a shift that has been in the works for many years: the "other" became "us," not assimilated into a melting pot, not an extension of white America. It was as if I could feel the patchwork being stitched together.

President Obama said in his speech today, "we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness." He himself embodies that patchwork heritage: the son of an African immigrant and a white woman from Kansas, he lived for a while in Indonesia when he was a child. He knows what it is to be an outsider, and yet he has benefited from some of the greatest advantages and privileges this country has to offer.

As I listened and looked around at what once would have been white America, I saw and loved the patchwork in all of its delicious diversity. Oooh, this is ever, ever, ever so much better. I don't feel embarrassed or tentative or apologetic to embrace Aretha as one of my own. She's not just an artist I have loved and admired all my life from afar. She is one of us, and I am one of her people, just as she is one of mine.

We are still distinct, each with her own heritage, his own flavor. There is much we have yet to learn from each other, many stories that still need to be told. But all the same, we are one people, we are one nation, we are brothers and sisters with a common vision and a common purpose, more closely allied with each other than we have ever been before.

I think the idea I am grasping at is bigger than my ability to express. I feel like I'm getting at only a shade of what's really happening. But I can feel it; I can feel the shift. It's big and it's important, and it's worth struggling to put it into words.

Much of my awareness of the shift is no doubt because of our new president. Our new sense of oneness is certainly a result of the message he has been driving home today.
What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility—a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task. . . .

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall. And why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.
Barack Obama is our first black president; he is a joy and a treasure to black America. We rejoice today with our black brothers and sisters; we share their delight and their awe at what it took to bring us to this day. Seeing their reaction to this great day drives home to us how long and hard and painful a journey this has been. And we rejoice that Barack Obama is a president to every American of every skin tone, every culture, every language.

I felt so proud of Aretha today as she sang "America." She is not only a black artist, not only the Queen of Soul and a source of pride for black Americans. She isn't just their Aretha; she's our Aretha. She is a national treasure for all of us.

The wounds and weapons of racism are still with us. The weapons have not yet been utterly vanquished; the wounds not completely healed. We have overcome much, but we still have a long way to go. Nevertheless, progress has been made—real, tangible progress. Our hearts are being knit together, more deeply and more surely than ever before. The patchwork is being stitched together, and all the great treasures who in the past would not have been allowed to shine will grow and flourish and nurture the divine spark that lives in all of us.


  1. All of your commentary on the last couple of days is beautifully written, Mary.

    This country needs to be a strong, warm quilt for the future. I want to pass along an heirloom treasure to my nieces and nephews of all skin shades.