Oh Say, Can You Hear?
In 1983, I was sitting on the couch at my father’s house watching the National Basketball Association All-Star game in Los Angeles. Don’t remember much about the game, but I do remember the national anthem.
Motown great Marvin Gaye did a version that was amazing. Infusing the old song with soul and funk and gospel, Gaye used a drum machine as a grooving backbeat that had the crowd clapping in rhythm and the players swaying along the sidelines. Gaye was emotional, punctuating “the rockets’ red glare” with clenched fists and bended knees. It was almost churchlike, depending on what kind of church you attended.
My father looked at the tv screen and wondered what he was hearing. “That’s not the national anthem,” he said incredulously. It wasn’t that my father was overly patriotic; it was that he didn’t think black soul music fit as part of American culture on something as basic as the national anthem. Many white Americans agreed, and the NBA fielded many irate calls and letters from those who felt Gaye had defamed “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Some saw it differently, of course. “It was so different that it reminded me of Jimi Hendrix’s anthem at Woodstock,” said Laker center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar after the game. “Marvin changed the whole template, and that broadened people’s minds. It illuminated the concept: ‘We’re black and we’re Americans. We can have a different interpretation [of the anthem], and that’s OK.’”
I was thinking about Marvin recently when the Spanish version of the anthem hit Latino radio stations across the country. The version is called “Nuestro Himno” (Our Anthem), and some of the lyrics have been changed slightly – but not the meaning. Some Americans have reacted as though the singers were burning an American flag in the studio. Conservative talk-radio hosts have been burning up the airwaves, invoking outrage among the same citizens who hyperventilate over religion and homosexuals and the liberal media.
So now they have moved their target to the immigrants and are blasting them because they’re singing our patriotic warhorse in Spanish. Once again, these neo-cons have their logic completely spun around to back their limited view of American culture. This is the same group that went ballistic when some immigrant protestors waved Mexican flags. So the protestors started waving American flags, pledged their support of this country, and recorded the anthem in Spanish so more immigrants would understand the significance of Francis Scott Key’s song.
Not good enough. This is an English-speaking country, you foreigners, and singing in Spanish is an affront to all good Americans. English is not only a language, the immigrants are told, it is our national identity. Mexico wouldn’t allow their anthem to be sung in English, now would they?
The problem with this logic is that language is not equal to national identity. Never has been, never will be. Every language is fluid, changing over time, folding in new influences and incorporating cultural differences. So, which English is our national identity? Is it the King’s English of the 1700s or a Texas drawl or African-American hip-hop lyrics or the posh country club accent? José, can you see?
If we want to take this faltering logic even further, we would use only language original to a country. In Texas, Spanish was here before English. Across the United States, numerous Native Americans tongues were used long before English took over. And why not go back even further? English and many other languages have a common source with the ancient Indian tongue of Sanskrit. Maybe we should just have all of our anthems and pledge of allegiance and political speeches done in Sanskrit. That was the original, right?
I am not a speaker of Spanish, but I don’t worry that I will be without a language to use in this country. English will always dominate culture and academics and business because most in this country speak English. And immigrants know they have to learn English if they want to get ahead here. That is not changing.
But if Latino immigrants want to sing our anthem in Spanish to celebrate their heritage and their new country, why not? If you understand it better in Swahili, have at it. If Larry the Cable Guy comes up with a hillbilly translation of the song, that’s fine, too. Because the defining judgment should be the meaning of the words being spoken, not the language of the speaker.
Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed that “The English language is the sea which receives tributaries from every region under heaven.” He might have been talking about America itself. Our population is based on tributaries from every region of the globe – the melting pot if you will, or the patches in the American quilt. And all those tributaries – with their cultures and their food and skin color and, yes, language – make our ocean mightier, not smaller, our pot richer, our quilt more beautiful.