I'll know that today is the "Fourth of July" (no matter what the calendar insists) when I hear my friend's stereo pulsing out "America the Beautiful."
The Ray Charles version, of course.
Charles's recent death, at 73, brings it to mind, but I've been aware for some years now how his prayerful exaltation of America has become the virtual theme song of the Fourth of July. What did Americans have for a theme song before that? Was it all Sousa marches, with hot dogs and applause-line oratory?
Charles transformed the holiday for me -- from the Norman Rockwell tableaux that never seemed to include anyone who looked like me -- to a holiday for all Americans.
And how did he manage that?
Maybe I should start with what may be my one important insight: that in most controversies, thoughtful people secretly believe both sides, espousing the one and suppressing the other depending on the company it puts them in. That is why it is so hard to find white Southerners of my approximate age who will admit to having been racists back in the days of Jim Crow.
What they recall, I believe, is that they harbored misgivings about the way things were, and now they find it more comfortable to recall the misgivings than their toleration of the way things were. I always believed that segregation was wrong. . . . And they did.
I have harbored similar misgivings about the willingness of black Americans to think of this country as someone else's house -- and to view it as complaining outsiders looking in. Of course there has always been ample basis for black people to feel like outsiders, at the very least to internalize W.E.B. DuBois's sense of the "two-ness" of being black in America. But didn't we, perhaps, overdo the outsider-ness?
You see, I always cherished America -- even if I acknowledged it only as the too-seldom played B-side of my consciousness. Charles's "America" invited me to turn the record over.
Charles could do that. He had a way of cutting through the confusions and mixed emotions and preconceptions, and reaching us at our core. The genius that made it possible for him to universalize the blues and spirituals and country -- anything he touched -- made it possible for him to universalize patriotism, too.
But if Ray Charles changed the Fourth of July with his "America the Beautiful," he also changed the song. "God done shed His grace on thee! He crowned thy good, yes he did, in a brotherhood."
The shift isn't merely from Katharine Lee Bates's elegant lyric to the black vernacular; it is a shift in meaning.
As Kenneth Moynihan noted in a recent commentary in the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette, Bates penned a prayer: "[May] God shed his grace on thee and crown thy good with brotherhood." Ray made it a fait accompli.
As Moynihan put it, "A fervent hope for the future has been turned into a happy fact of the present."
It is not, Moynihan argues, an improvement.
"People much prefer to believe in their own righteousness and that of the nation than to think about their failings," he wrote. "No doubt the passionate affirmation of American brotherhood as a divine dispensation already granted accounts for a healthy share of the popularity of Mr. Charles' rather radical modification of the song."
He's right, of course. And maybe he'd be right to remind those white Southerners I talk to that they really did used to be racists. Sometimes, though, I think it's not a bad idea to let people believe that their nobler instinct represents their "true" self -- that it is their greed, their envy and their bigotry that are the aberration. You know: "As a man believeth in his heart, so he is."
At least for this day, can't we imagine that we are brothers (and sisters) "from sea to shining sea"? And be grateful for that?
Ray Charles says it's all right.