You might know the song, “America,” by Paul Simon. It’s based on a road trip he took with his girlfriend in 1964. Here’s the last stanza:
Cathy, I’m lost, I said though I knew she was sleeping
And I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America
All come to look for America
All come to look for America
I have always believed that the essence of America is The Dream: the creation of a society where all human beings “…are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and a shared commitment to human dignity, democratic processes and the rule of law are the means of fulfilling that dream.
But there are times when I wonder if I’m naive.
In 2010 I attended a conference in Washington, D.C. and visited the Capitol. In the rotunda I viewed eight paintings featuring great moments in American history, including the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I then turned to the “Frieze of American History,” a fresco depicting 19 other scenes. Many scenes were ones I expected. But I was surprised by others: Montezuma greeting Cortez like a God and Juan Pizzaro conquering the Inca people in Peru in search of gold. What are these scenes from Latin American colonial history doing in the U.S. Capitol? As I thought about it, it seemed obvious: the artist understood America as the supreme example of the hemisphere-wide history of Europeans conquest.
We don’t have to look too far in our recent history — from the January 6 attack on the Capitol to the mass shooting at the supermarket in Buffalo – to see that, for some, “the Dream” is not as important as the conviction that, beneath the rhetoric, “America” is really about the continued dominance of a specific group.
So, if we “look for America,” what do we find? The Dream? Or just another country controlled by a particular tribe?
I remember being in New York for our oldest daughter’s college graduation. Our two younger daughters and I took the ferry to Ellis Island. We entered the reception area and saw a large collection of historic luggage on display– suitcases, satchels and woven baskets reflecting cultures from around the world. We went into the waiting room where wooden benches are arranged end-to-end in parallel rows, so new arrivals would move up one row and down the next until it was their turn to be processed. We sat on a bench looking out on the Statue of Liberty and read it was one of the actual benches used in the early 1900s. My maternal grandmother had come through Ellis Island as a 21-year-old in 1912, speaking no English. Her passage had been paid by a family friend living in Riverside who would sponsor young people in exchange for two years of domestic service. I realized she may have sat on this very bench. I never knew her – she died before I was born – and I wished I could ask her what she might have been ‘looking for” when she made the trip by herself. I thought of all the opportunities and blessings my family and I have known – far beyond anything she could have imagined. This was a moment when The Dream seemed real.
I remember a 4th of July picnic in Yakima, Washington. We had become close to several Filipino families in my congregation, and they’d invited us to celebrate the holiday with them. There is a proud tradition of oratory in Filipino culture. The father gave the first speech, and eloquently described his dream of coming to America, all the obstacles he had to overcome, and how grateful he was to be here with his family. Then one of his daughters spoke. Soon after she arrived, she had enrolled in the local community college to earn a teaching credential. One instructor told her she would never be a good teacher because her accent was too strong. In that moment, she said, she became determined to prove him wrong. By the time we knew her, she was an official “Master Teacher” and universally respected in her profession. Being present for these testimonies made me feel closer to the meaning of the 4th of July than any fireworks display. This was a moment when The Dream seemed real.
On the day in 2010 when I visited the Capitol rotunda, my walk back to my hotel took me past the White House. There was a black family dressed in African apparel looking through the fence. The Obama family was living there at the time, and I tried to imagine what it felt like for this family to know that. This was a moment when The Dream seemed real.
I think of a Muslim grad student from Egypt who became a good friend. He described what it was like to grow up in a country with a corrupt and repressive government, and how thrilled he was to become a US citizen. “Do Americans realize what an amazing thing the Constitution is?” he asked. This was a time when The Dream seemed real.
I’ve never “counted the cars” on the New Jersey Turnpike or Interstate 5, and it’s been a long time since I’ve ridden a Greyhound bus. But I think about our country at this time in its history. We’ve “all come to look for America,” and the quest may never end. But to me, it’s all about The Dream.