“Two Visions of America
How we view America depends upon our experience in America. In American history, there has been a great “tournament of narratives”: two competing visions of the American narrative. In our 40th post in our 40-Day Journey of Promise, we compare and contrast the typical European vision and experience of American with the typical African vision and experience of America.
Understanding these drastically different perspectives can be of great assistance toward understanding one another–toward unity in diversity.
The Promised Land
When European Christians immigrated to America, they chose a dominant biblical lens through which to view themselves corporately. They were, according to Puritan John Winthrop, “a city upon a hill.” As God’s new chosen people fleeing the religious tyranny of Europe, if they obeyed God they would “find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies.”
From the earliest period of their migration to the New World, European colonists spoke of their journey as the New Exodus of a New Israel from bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land of milk and honey. For these early European Americans, America already was the Promised Land. White Europeans left Europe in an exodus due to persecution, finding religious and political freedom and likening it to the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea.
For their ancestors, the message rings true to this day—they are God’s chosen people and America is an especially God-blessed land. In fact, many would be shocked to realize that anyone has ever seen it any differently.
Bound for the Promised Land
Whereas Europeans freely sailed to the “land of the free,” Africans were stolen away from their free lands, stowed in the hideous holds of the slave ships, and brought to the “land of bondage.” For Europeans the Exodus already occurred, for Africans it was yet future. Europeans lived in the Promised Land. Africans were bound for the Promised Land.
“For African-Americans the journey was reversed: whites might claim that America was a new Israel, but blacks knew that it was Egypt, since they, like the children of Israel of old, still toiled in bondage. Unless America freed God’s African children, this nation would suffer the plagues that had afflicted Egypt.”
Could two biblically-based visions of one nation be any more different? Both shared a common stock of biblical metaphors: Egypt, Exodus, the Promised Land. However, each saw the vision through different lenses.
The African American National Anthem
James Weldon Johnson summarizes the African American national narrative brilliantly. Lift Every Voice has been called “The African American National Anthem.”
James Weldon Johnson
Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet,
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered;
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by thy might, led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee.
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee.
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.”