From time to time I get into conversation with friends about our National Anthem. I suggest that a text written in the midst of war, particularly a war with one of our closest allies, might not be the best choice, even if the tune were not so difficult. As a descendant of the brother of Katherine Lee Bates, I also am bold enough to suggest that "America the Beautiful" would be a good replacement. One of my friends - and he remains a friend in spite of this - tends to dismiss Aunt Katherine's poem as Victorian sentimentality. I concede that Aunt Katherine's sensibilities are dated, but every time I read or sing her words I see in them the kind of challenge that this country needs if it is not to slip into the role of an imperial power exploiting those who are weaker than we are.
Consider these words from the second stanza:
- America! America!
- God mend thine ev'ry flaw,
- Confirm thy soul in self-control,
- Thy liberty in law.
Or these from the next stanza:
- America! America!
- May God thy gold refine
- Till all success be nobleness,
- And ev'ry gain divine
What Aunt Katherine was expressing, in the language of her time, was an awareness that we are not a perfect people, a perfect nation, and that we need mending. As a child growing up in Falmouth, Massachusetts, she had a concern for the welfare of Native American children and an awareness that the way her - and my - ancestors had treated those who were here before us was the reason that those children were not as privileged as she was. She was, actually, not nearly as privileged as I have been. After her father's death soon after her birth, her family struggled for years, but it was in those years of struggle that Katherine became aware of the needs of others, including native American children.
I would be surprised if Aunt Katherine's words ever became our National Anthem, but I hope that they will always be part of our national memory, challenging us with their appeal to our "better angels."