Why Our Response to Coke’s “America the Beautiful” Matters

Feb 3 2014

My dad was 8 years old in 1956. That’s the same year he remembers watching his dad invite Mrs. Rhodes, the neighbor who’d knocked on their door in Seattle, paper and pen in hand, to get the hell off his property.

Mrs. Rhodes, it turns out, was the mastermind behind a petition to keep a Japanese American family from buying a house in the new development on the next street, a kind of discrimination still protected by law in many places in 1956 America.

As a Navy veteran who fought in the Pacific just over a decade earlier — who kept vigil against the Japanese military on dark nights in a huge ocean — my grandfather could have taken the popular cultural position of his day and rejected the family outright.

But he didn’t.

My grandfather didn’t sign the petition.

And it’s not because he knew the family.

He just knew of them.

He knew the father was a fellow veteran.

He knew the family wanted to live in the neighborhood.

And that was more than enough.

And so he worked behind the scenes and in a way I doubt the family ever knew to champion them. To help them be free to live their lives next to his. Which is, I believe, America at its best.

So when Mrs. Rhodes bustled up to the front door that day, armed with a petition and a speech, my grandfather interrupted her. “I did not fight in the Pacific during WWII,” he said, “so a bigot like you could stand on my front porch and attempt to deny an American citizen and fellow veteran the opportunity to buy a home for himself and his family. Now get off my property before I have you thrown off.”

And he said it while my dad watched. All 8 years of him, spindly-limbed and wide-eyed, brain chugging away at the implications of his dad addressing Mrs. Rhodes that way.

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On Saturday, I curled my daughter’s hair for Homecoming, and she dressed in her $20 find from Ross Dress for Less, altered by her grandmother to fit, with borrowed shoes and her mama’s pearls and a bright smile and anticipation.

On Saturday, I hugged my daughter’s boyfriend, and he whispered thank you as we set out to take pictures.

On Saturday, I thought about the strange tides and currents that bring a little boy from a terrible war in Sierra Leone to a quiet town in rural Oregon to grow into a young man to meet a young woman who was born in Vietnam and to ask her to dance.

And on Saturday, I thought, what a strange and sensational life, this one we all have that is blended from the bits that are beautiful and the bits that are broken.

Then on Sunday, Coca Cola showed this ad during the Superbowl:

And on Sunday, there was an outcry against singing America the Beautiful in languages other than English.

Listen. Here’s why our reaction to Sunday’s Coke commercial matters. Here’s why it makes a difference what we say today… and 58 years from today.

We say little things. On Facebook. To our friends. To our family. In comments sections and out loud and in quiet and behind closed doors. And our children hear us. All of those places. They hear and they witness and they follow our lead. And 58 years later, they will remember. They will remember and it will shape their lives. They will remember who we welcomed and who we shunned. Who we embraced and who we discarded. And they will remember whether we thought it was OK to love America the Beautiful in the languages we bring with us. Whether it’s OK to express ourselves as ourselves. As Vietnamese and Sierra Leonean. As Japanese and Irish. As Guatemalan and Haitian. Or whether we must pretend to be what we’re not until we become it – bland, homogeneous, uniform, standardized.

The detractors of the Coke commercial are right. Our culture is at stake.

Now, adoption is not easy. Either of children or of a country or of a new way of thinking. It’s complex and nuanced and heart rending, full of deep losses and great gains. It takes us apart and then it remakes us into people who are a mix of who we were then and who we are now. It is tragic and triumphant, these threads of stories snipped and grafted and respun. There is very little that is easy about blending nations and embracing other cultures and championing the freedom of people who look and sound different than what we are accustomed to.

But I will tell you what.

It is worth it.

And we can be America the Beautiful.

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P.S. If you want to watch full-length versions of America the Beautiful in all 8 languages featured in the ad, Coca Cola has provided them here: in EnglishHindiTagalogSpanishSenegalese-French, HebrewMandarin, and Keres. And behind the scenes, which is my favorite. Gorgeous.

P.P.S. My daughter’s a weirdo.

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Like her mama.

………

So. What did I miss? What are your thoughts about Coke’s America the Beautiful ad?