Our trip to Yellowstone with my brother’s family this past summer was full of wonders and first times for kids and grownups alike, as we had anticipated. It also gave us the opportunity to come across tourists from all over the United States. One of them, in particular, caught my attention. She was a middle-aged white woman wearing a T-shirt that read “God, Family and the Sweet USA.”
On a good day, I can think of many positive traits that characterize America: free, open, strong, bold, resourceful, opportunity-driven, empowering, inspiring… “Sweet,” however, is not one of them. The American way of life is not devoid of sweetness, of course. But how could that be enough to label this country “the Sweet USA?”
Given America’s history, including achingly recent history, of violence, racism, and discrimination the T-shirt’s motto strikes me as incredibly tone deaf. When I saw it I thought of slavery, lynchings, and segregation. I then researched the T-Shirt and found that it is sold by a company named Simply Southern, which seems quite… fitting.
Simply Southern… I am pretty confident the dark side of her country’s past and present was not on that American woman’s mind when she chose what to wear that day. She would probably even be surprised if someone told her those words on her shirt are offensive. That’s the problem, precisely.
Like many people living in this country I am deeply concerned by its intense political polarization and so I have become weary of bringing up arguments that may reinforce this pattern. But it is true nevertheless that this country is made of people who would not see anything problematic with the “Sweet USA” T-shirt and people who definitely would. The question, and I don’t think there is any more pressing one in this country right now, is how they can genuinely reach out to each other.
While reflecting on “the Sweet USA” it occurred to me that there is a famous French song I am very fond of and have never examined as critically as the words on the T-shirt. Charles Trenet’s beautiful Douce France, written during WWII, celebrates the sweetness of an uncomplicated, village-centered France. As much as I am aware of my native country’s own dark hours and failings, it turns out I find it all right that the song would gloss over them. So much for impartiality…
Interestingly, Douce France became popular again in the 1980s when a French-Algerian rock band named Carte de Séjour (Residence Permit) remade the song into a striking, energetic hymn to France’s diversity. I see their husky and melodious version as a vital complement to the original because it conveys a love for France at once real and complex. Whether the Sweet USA or Douce France, is there any other meaningful way to love one’s imperfect country?