Courageous fear and arrogant shame
By NANCY PATRICK
I don’t listen to a lot of music other than church songs or selections my friends recommend to me. However, my son recently said I had to listen to a song entitled “We Americans” by the Avett Brothers, a folk-rock group from North Carolina. I had heard of neither the song nor the artists, so I had no idea of the song’s content. I found the words both haunting and convicting as an American Christian living in a conflicted society plagued by an international pandemic as well as a national racial and economic crisis.
I have written before about my love of language, so I chose to entitle this piece with some rather ambiguous words. As an English teacher, I often taught students about paradoxes in literature as well as in life. An oxymoron is a specific type of paradox and applies to my topic as well. Just as a paradox consists of a contradictory statement or proposal that, oddly enough, makes sense, so the oxymoron usually juxtaposes two terms that contradict each other, though have true meaning.
One example of a paradoxical situation relates to what many people have discovered during our current quarantine. Some who considered their jobs burdensome have discovered how much they miss their work place or colleagues; others, who lost those jobs, now realize their good fortune in having them. The oxymoron appears to have two words together that contradict each other. For example, a “heavenly curse” may involve a spiritual gift you would prefer to forfeit. I believe God gave me the gift of discernment; however, many times in my life, my discernment has caused others and myself grief.
My introductory paragraphs prepare you for the song “We Americans” by the Avett brothers. You can find the lyrics at https://www.lyricsmode.com/the_avett_brothers-we_americans-1719751.html. This particular link allows the user to highlight certain lines and request an explanation; however, I think most of you will understand all too well the meanings of the lines without seeking explanations. To hear the song performed by the Avett Brothers, click on the image below.
The song conveys the ambiguous nature of American patriotism as it relates to righteous pride while at the same time questions the morality and integrity of certain chapters of our history. It begins with reverence for our flag, liberty, and sacrifice of so many who died for our way of life. However, the end of stanza one foreshadows a different kind of patriotism, one based on history books with “obscured or torn out pages.”
What do these torn out pages contain? When I sing “America, the Beautiful” or “The Star-Spangled Banner,” do I understand that the foundation of my devotion and patriotism consists of “stolen land,” worked and cultivated by “stolen people”? Do I reflect on the “blood in the soil” mixed with the “cotton and tobacco”?
How often do privileged Americans contemplate what really happened in our early history? Not only did our European ancestors view this land as theirs for the taking, but they also viewed Africans as theirs to kidnap and enslave. Our ancestors thought nothing of displacing native American tribes and exploiting their relative naivete in bargaining for goods as well as in terms of treatises. If you are unfamiliar with some of these early arrangements, I urge you to read some of the pacts made between the settlers and natives.
As the song progresses, the words evoke visceral responses to the pain and injustice in our history. One stanza recounts how our ancestors’ ghosts haunt us because of their actions, yet we realize we cannot recall them to account for their own sins. Rather, we must work toward righting their wrongs. Although we ourselves did not commit the thefts, kidnappings, rapes, and other atrocities, we can become responsible to make sure they do not happen again. One sentence expresses the spiritual and emotional clash we feel as we recognize our kinship with God and other human beings even while admitting we “may never understand the good and evil” that co-exist within us.
Other oxymoronic words admit that we “love this land because of and in spite of we the people.” I spent some time digesting the import of this statement. I do love America; I appreciate all the benefits of being a citizen of a country of freedom and liberty; yet, I recognize the evil done that contributed to this country’s greatness. I confess complicity in “all the broken bones and broken hearts” and ask God to “keep us wherever we go” and at the same time plead for forgiveness for “where we’ve been.”
The song ends with a chorus of “Love in our hearts with the pain and the memory,” “Love in our hearts with the pain and the memory,” “Love in our hearts with the pain and the memory.” We must remember that love comes with a cost, often paid by someone else. Forgetting the pain others suffered for us makes a mockery of their suffering and sacrifice.
I recently watched Jake Tapper interview three clergy members (one African-American Christian bishop, one Jewish rabbi, and one Muslim imam). Their messages and prayers, though filtered through individual religious doctrines, sounded amazingly similar. Each prayed to “God,” each prayed for humanity, each prayed for tolerance and healing at a time of great turmoil in our country, and each admitted perplexity at how to bring people of different cultures together as one human race.
My title, “Courageous Fear and Arrogant Shame,” expresses my conflicted heart. I love my country. Though so proud of America many times, I have grieved over events in which my country has participated. Even though slavery may seem in the distant past, I can put it in perspective by considering how many lifetimes have passed since the end of the Civil War. My grandmother, born in 1901, could have had relatives fighting in that war only forty years before her birth.
Born in 1950, I lived during the Jim Crow laws of the South and all those entailed. Segregation reigned—school, friendship, church, military service, job opportunity, housing, medicine, food service, and all social interaction. I had no friends of color. I didn’t even know anyone of color except those who worked for some of my relatives in Arkansas. I grew up without an understanding of the systemic racism that tainted my beloved country.
I pray that we find a way to retain our patriotism without losing the memories or lessons from our painful past. This country became a country of immigrants as soon as the first Europeans arrived and began settling. As far as I know, we restricted immigration to only one race—the human one.
Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing