“Freedom’s name is mighty sweet, and one day soon we are gonna meet. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on…”
— Keep Your Eyes on the Prize by Alice Wine
When I think of freedom, I am drawn into the words and music that speak truth to the American experience. They are written by humble hands. “Keep your eyes on the prize” is more than a lure to tangible reward. It is a phrase that reflects movement and motion within a perpetually evolving path to freedom; to democracy. Our “prize” has always been about self-realization within a social organism – family, community, nation, and world. It reaches beyond electoral democracy because that has been taken. It transcends the notion of the “American Dream” because this has deluded our human dignity.
“Freedom’s name is mighty sweet…” gives us pause, but also a gentle warning. The name of freedom can be draped in war, safety and individualism. Its name has been tarnished with cracks in liberty and frays in our social fabric.
One bright sunny morning, in the shadow of the steeple
By the relief office, I saw my people
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering
If this land was made for you and me.
–This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie
This verse is often forgotten when we use the song as an anthem of American greatness. Guthrie, however, wrote the lyrics in response to “God Bless America,” a song that was deemed a polemic on American exceptionalism. By contrast, his lyrics reflect the American ideal as tested by the reality of its inequality. “In the shadow of the steeple” goes to the stark hypocrisy of a nationalized identity. The lyric reveals the distorted tendencies when Christian works are proclaimed the foundation of our body politic. All the while, the “people” stand hungry just beyond its sacred texts in which Jesus implores humanity to “feed the hungry.” Guthrie castigates the idea of a country “blessed by God.” He questions the façade of America that is bedazzled with the illusion that we are self-made.
Kris Kristofferson wrote, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose..” Perhaps this is our national “freedom.” We settle for freedom at its least. We scrape for hope in its absent shadow.
Yes, freedom’s name is mighty sweet when spoken by its captors. But the songs of the people speak to its unchanging essence.