The Fifth Grade American Songbook

It is 1956-57, and I am in fifth grade at Beacon Heights Elementary, a blond brick school building poised over highway 55 at the edge of Minneapolis, Minnesota. The playground runs alongside and out back. We have already learned that in case the Russians drop an atomic bomb we are not to look down this highway toward the Foshay Tower, which at 32 floors is the tallest building between Chicago and Seattle. We are so proud. Little kids, all of us a cohort born in the first year of the postwar baby boom. Little white kids, unconscious of our whiteness, our privilege, or of the embedded injustices of our country. We won the War. Everything is okay now. We are so proud.

Mrs. Thompson’s 5th grade class. I can still name most of these children. I was engaged at the time to both the Elliot twins.

The bell rings, we stand by our desks. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

At age ten, I do not know how demanding these words actually are, or what a commitment they need to require of me my whole life. I am still learning.

Fifth grade is the year I learned to sing. The district hired a music teacher and as soon as Miss Purdy arrived at our door we put aside other work and whipped out our song books. When I Google this to jog my memory, there it is: The American Singer, a hard-cover red book compiled in 1944. I can feel the heft of it in my now aged hands. Songs to stir hearts and minds of little children, songs that roam my mind still today: an entire repertoire of folksy. innocuous, patriotic, supremacist, Judeo-Christian tunes, designed to create a country of white children who share common harmonies.

Illustration inside the front flap.

This presumption was everywhere around me and I want to examine its influence–then and now. I have ordered a copy so that beyond the few pages I could capture with screenshots, I can explore what was planted into my mind about whiteness, American-ness, and the races and ethnicities that created “one nation, under God, indivisible” so that I can continue to work toward “liberty and justice for all.”

Page introducing Indian songs. Underlined words were on the spelling test.

I believe this is a journey of un-enculturation that white Americans need to undertake. It is shocking, in terms of today’s sensitivity to diversity and inclusion, to see the happy illustrations of all white children. Everyone looks like “me” and the portrayal of “them” is distant and faraway. (Indians, for example, are spoken of in the past tense and Mrs. Thompson never informs us we live on traditional Ojibwe territory, or that there are 11 tribal nations in the state.)

Democracy is a process of continual updating. When this country was founded, it appropriated democratic ideas from the Iroquois Nation, held slave-holding signers to the Declaration of Independence and early Presidents in high regard, forbid women and minorities from voting. We have been updating our understanding of America from 1776 to now—and we need to continue. Updating democracy is necessary to civility and civilization. We cannot réestablish outmoded models of whiteness and should not try to preserve supremacist privilege, but find the courage to open our hearts to the transformation that is now upon us and take up this essential task of revisioning America.

Kate Smith and movie orchestra

Beyoncé and friends and estimated 1.2 million citizens, the largest public event ever held in DC.

I offer renditions of two of our most revered ballads. The first is Kate Smith in 1943 singing the new song “God Bless America,” written and released in World War II, and the second is Beyoncé singing “America the Beautiful” at President Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. One represents America then, and the other America now. Kate Smith’s America wasn’t horrible, it was just totally white. Not everyone was white then: and certainly not now. I pray we can claim the beauty of who we are as a nation of myriad people.

We are all choosing right now: choose carefully. Democracy is trying to update itself. There is fear and backlash, as there has always been. Our essential task is to go forward anyway until we discover an inclusive harmony that makes America beautiful for everyone.

Let’s lift every voice and sing! VOTE!

16 replies
  1. Rosi Hollinbeck
    Rosi Hollinbeck says:

    Many years ago, I taught a yearbook class. I brought in my Wayakos to show my students, and the first thing anyone said was, “Mrs. Hollinbeck, everyone is white!” It was certainly a different world. I did love Mrs. Purdy and singing though. Wonderful post, Christina. Thanks. Stay well.

    Reply
  2. Laura Collins
    Laura Collins says:

    A powerful reflection; thank you.

    I feel fortunate to have attended a diverse elementary school in the 60s, and to have been raised in a Quaker community that respected the otherness of others.

    But “they” were still “them;” separated from “us.”

    I’m still seeking greater understanding, but discovering that I’ll never fully understand or recognize my privilege.

    Reply
  3. Gretchen Staebler
    Gretchen Staebler says:

    This is brilliant. “We have been updating our understanding of America from 1776 to now—and we need to continue.” To not do so is actually unAmerican. I looked for my school songbook from the 60s, but didn’t see anything familiar. I’ve also been wishing I had my Girl Scout handbook; alas, my mother didn’t save much I actually want. Thank you for this, Christina. How we got to this point is so essential to our understanding. Perhaps we can forgive ourselves for the indoctrination over which we had no control, and continue to right it for the next generation.

    Reply
    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      I am reading Isabel Wilkerson’s new book, CASTE, The Origins of our Discontents. It is brilliant, readable, horrifying to realize how totally clued out I and many nice, liberal people have been about the systems we live in and the cost to millions of people. It’s a book that can reshape our conversation and give us a way forward.

      Reply
  4. Wallace Cason
    Wallace Cason says:

    The third stanza of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” goes like this: “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has 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.” – Methodist Hymnal, p. 519. Some of us know why it is important to learn this song.

    Reply
    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Wally, I hope most people know why it is important to sing this song, to sing it as the Black Anthem, to sing it as a call to conscience and connection. Sing it slow and asking ourselves, even if we need to translate some of the patriarchal language, how to be true to our interpretations of God and true to our native land.

      Reply
  5. Kate Lipkis
    Kate Lipkis says:

    Thanks for this, Christina. Yes, now is the time for a reschooling and yes, we’re late to the party.

    I have my own version of your childhood, which included seeing statues of kangaroos, emus and yes, indigenous Australians holding spears, on the front lawns of suburban houses. While it triggers a sharp intake of breath now, the power of enculturation is such that it never struck me as odd back then. I’m reading voraciously and for the first time now of the brave aboriginal warriors who put up such resistance to the settlers. Shame is a useless emotion but action and reparations are due, for sure.

    Reply
    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      This is very well articulated Kate, thank you for taking the time and bringing in a white Aussie perspective. Breathe well down there!

      Reply
  6. Patricia Houston
    Patricia Houston says:

    I love this post Christina! and especially the 2 singers. Such a perfect comparison. We are all on this path of awareness and reconciliation, together.

    Reply
  7. Suzanne
    Suzanne says:

    Wow – what a difference between the two songs – and the audience. Beyonce made me cry – especially today when thing seems so bleak and with the loss of our beloved RBG.

    Reply

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