Notes for a New American Song
By Eboo Patel, Executive Director, Interfaith Youth Core
Saturday, Feb. 21, Nobel Peace Prize Forum
A few weeks ago, I made a discovery at the Art Institute of Chicago. Continuing past the grand entranceway on the lower level, I found myself in a dimly lit corridor displaying the various instruments that the human family had used to shed its own blood across the centuries. It was a dark walk through the rifles and pistols, the swords and spears, the medieval armor and ancient slingshots. But moving forward, a different color began to emerge: the azure possibility of the human future celebrated in Marc Chagall's America Windows. Mounted on those panels are symbols of freedom and welcome, song and study, work and worship — the possibility of America and what the world could be. Standing before Chagall's piece, I found myself remembering James Baldwin's great line: "If we (in America) ... do not falter in our duty now, we may be able to ... achieve our country, and change the history of the world."
America is a trauma of contradictions. In our history there are slave drivers and freedom fighters. Our nation manufactures war machines and nurtures peace movements. The world has known us as a promise and a predator. There are times when we have risen up and done the greater good, and moments when we have lacked that courage and were content with being the lesser evil.
In the jazz and war of American contradiction, there is a color we have to keep our eyes on — the azure of possibility, the promise of what can be.
The Indian writer Arundhati Roy points out that the single most powerful force in the world is American civil society. Will our shoulders lift this nation up so it can see on the other side of the selfish now? Will our hands shape this country into a land worthy of its dream?
Should we ever feel suffocated by too much reality, let us remember the words of Langston Hughes:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be
It is not for ourselves in America alone that we manifest this potential. In our soil is a spirit meant for the world. That spirit is carried on the wings of the American song.
Bob Dylan once said that if you want to know something about American hope, go visit Woody Guthrie. Perhaps there was no American more human than Woody Guthrie, and no human more American. When a group of Mexican migrant workers died in a plane crash, the news reports referred to them only as deportees. But Woody Guthrie refused to let them go nameless. He sang:
Goodbye my Juan, goodbye Rosalita
Adios mis Amigos, Jesus and Maria
The night Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger met, they played a charity concert for migrant workers. They sang American songs so the world would feel welcome.
Woody Guthrie stands in a tradition of American songs of righteousness and humanity. There are those who went before. Walt Whitman, who said:
My spirit has passed in compassion and determination around the whole earth,
I have looked for equals and lovers and found them ready for me in all lands,
I think some divine rapport has equalized me with them.
Those who stand with us now. Ani Difranco, who sings:
"I am a patriot, I have been fighting the good fight."
And Arlo Guthrie, who plays notes that bring out new meanings in his daddy's songs. I saw Arlo play "This Land is Your Land" at the Parliament of the World's Religions in Cape Town, South Africa. He paused after he sang the first refrain. He said to the audience. This song is meant for the whole world. When I sing, 'From California to the New York Island', know that sometimes you have to go the long way around."
Song and image are central to the way we conceive our country. As Walter Lippman said, "The way in which the world is imagined will determine at any given moment what men will do." Woody Guthrie and Marc Chagall imagined an America worth achieving. The question before my generation is will we extend their imagination into the 21st century and build that country? Great nations are made of righteous strivings.
America is a grand gathering of souls, the vast majority from elsewhere. A century ago it was Jews and Catholics from Southern and Eastern Europe who came, adding new texture to the American tradition. A century ago, it was Jane Addams who imagined and created a new America. Her conviction was that America needed to invite its new Catholic and Jewish immigrants to sit at its table. Her creation, Hull House, succeeded in deepening American democracy.
More recently it has been Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and a range of new Christians from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Latin world that have come. America is now the most religiously diverse nation on the planet.
I am an American with a Muslim soul. My soul carries a long history of heroes, movements and civilizations that sought to submit to the will of God. My soul watched while Ishmael and Prophet Abraham built Islam's holiest shrine, the kaaba. My soul listened as the Prophet Muhammad preached the central messages of Islam, tazaaqa and tawhid, compassionate justice and the oneness of God. In the middle ages, my soul spread East and West, praying in the mosques and studying in the libraries of the great medieval Muslim cities of Cairo, Baghdad and Cordoba. My soul whirled with Rumi, read Aristotle with Averroes, traveled through Central Asia with Nasir Khusrow. In the colonial era, my Muslim soul was stirred to justice. It marched with Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Gandhi in their satyagraha to free India. It stood with Farid Esack, Ebrahim Moosa and the Muslim Youth Movement in the struggle against apartheid.
The stories of my Muslim soul add new notes to the American song. I bring the Muslim story of creation. God created humanity with his breath and made us His abd and khalifa — His servant and representative — upon the Earth. When the angels protested the exalted role that God had set before humanity God vouched for our goodness by saying to the Angels, "I know what you do not know."
I bring the cosmic poetry of Rumi:
I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up
from the ground
My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless.
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know
I bring the Qur'an's guidance on brotherhood: "O humankind, God has created you from male and female that you may come to know each other: Verily, the most honored of you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous."
For me, this is where Islam and America meet. In one eye I carry this ancient Muslim vision on pluralism, in the other eye I carry the promise of 21st century America. Within our borders and beyond, America has the opportunity to move Creation in line with the intention of the Creator. We can build a world where diverse nations and peoples live together in brotherhood and righteousness. A world where each people can add their notes to the collective song.
Martin Luther King dreamed this world. He called it "the beloved community ... (acting together) in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world."
The pacifist poet William Stafford showed us the path to this new world:
If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star
For it is important that awake people be awake
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear, the darkness around us is deep.
There is a new world waiting to be achieved. It is a world free from ancient enmities. A world where the swords and spears in that dark hallway in the Art Institute have become plowshares and pruning hooks. A world where all people — Muslim and Hindu, Christian and Jewish, Bah'ai and Buddhist — have dedicated themselves to defeating poverty and disease instead of each other. I see it clearly in the vision of the Jewish—American poet Kevin Coval, who imagines the meeting of the brothers Isaac and Ishmael, symbols of the Israelites and Arabs, who come together to bury their father, the Patriarch Abraham:
Isaac, I have returned
My shoes are off in your home.
My Lord is Allah
Is What Saved You Atop the Mountain
Do not weep because the Patriarch is gone
Death is rebirth
Is time to build new temples
Tell stories of our father
Sing his praises
Mend his curses
Stand over his memory and
decide where to move from here
My open palm extends to you
Salaam, Shalom, In peace brother
Will you take my hand?