This is My Home
“It is to Berlin’s eternal credit that he found a way to express the deepest aspirations of a diverse people, a people that might be unified and uplifted – for a melodious three minutes, at least – by the words and music of Irving Berlin.”– Laurence Maslon
The earliest recollection of Israel Beilin, born to Moysi and Lei Baileen, was as a child driven from Jewish Tolochin in Belarus and hiding while the city burned. From this alienated region of the Russian empire the Baileen family found their way to New York in 1893. To make a remarkable story short, the 5 year old immigrant named Israel Beilin, who learned English as a second language, became Irving Berlin and wrote “God Bless America.” This patriotic song by an immigrant became one of the most iconic works in the history of American music. In twisted interpretation, and in direct contradiction to the genesis of the composition, in our own time it has been exploited as an anthem to exclusion.
Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America”, and in it we find a metaphoric opportunity to envision a country defined by celebrating the wealth of perspectives that come from embracing differences. These differences range from race, gender identity, family background, and economic circumstance to name only a few to represent an abundance of gifts.
The song derives its name from the key lyric:
“God bless America, my home sweet home.”
It is the second half of that lyric we want to focus on: “My home sweet home.” In music we talk about phrases having a question and an answer. The questioning phrase introduces harmonic tension, and the answering phrase brings cadence and resolution. The words “my home sweet home” are powerful. They reinforce the sense of place and belonging that become the foundation of strong communities.
We often hear conjecture about ‘The Face of America’, but what is that? What face do we put on a coffee mug to represent America?
America is an inverse negative. It can’t be defined by what it is, because America is so many simultaneous things. But perhaps it could be defined by what it is not. It could be a nation where no one type of human is lifted above others. It could be a nation where every human is valued. Where no one face is representative because every face is represented. It could be.
Langston Hughes wrote:
“O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—”
That “yet” at the end of the sentence is a very small word with monumental implications. At a time when patriotism and religion have been appropriated as tools of violence and exclusion, can we redefine them as reflections of that potential? Can patriotism stand for altruism and inclusion, for kindness and welcoming the stranger?
Some might say that the worst of what we’ve seen these last years is the real face of America. They would not be wrong, but perhaps they would not be entirely right, either. Hughes’ poem engages deeply with the brutalities and injustices that form the core of too many Americans’ experience, including his own. Yet he concludes with these words:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!”
We, the people, must redeem our best ideals. We can do this. We can exercise our rights: to assemble, to speak freely and fearlessly, and to vote. We can say to ourselves, I belong here, and
This is My Home.
Written by Matthew Duvall & Andrea Moore