In between church and Kool and the Gang I want to say a few things about July 4th. It is a holiday that I am most ambivalent about.
“Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic,” begins Mr. Frederick Douglass in his famous speech, quoted so often (and sometimes out of context) on this day). https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2927t.html
He picked a great way in to reminding the audience that this country has problems. It’s pretty much how I start off every history class that I teach. You see, there’s this suggestion going around that we liberal professors are on campuses across the country extolling the evils of the U.S. of A. I mean, critical race theory and then some! Thing is, this country was built on a lot of really bad things, literally and figuratively. Bringing that perspective into the classroom, and into revered holidays, requires some gentle handling.
Church today was wonderful, as always. Pastor Smith was speaking about sacred symbols, among other things — the way we get so carried away with the symbols that they themselves become sacred, instead of the thing they symbolize — in our case, God. The American flag, he reminded, is a symbol. And it is one that has become sacred for many. So much so, that when folks — following the supposed tenets of American freedom, the way I see it — protest the governing of the country that flag symbolizes, those protestors come under fire. Literally, as well as figuratively. And this got me to wondering, if Frederick Douglass gave that famous speech today, would he even have survived. What with the violent gun culture, White supremacy, and hostility nurtured in this country (and yes, it took all kinds of nurturing; it does not come out of nowhere). I mean Douglass was saying some way-out stuff to a bunch of people who were expecting a polite, gracious — maybe even grateful — oration from this famous Black man. That’s not, in fact, what they got. (Please read the whole speech if you have not yet).
“The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me.” That’s what he said. As in, you all celebrate if you like, but there is work to be done. It’s what those of us who feel ambivalent about this holiday, and about this country, are saying. It’s not a bad place, America, I enjoy a lot of things about this country. But there is so much work to be done. Today, while people are dressed up in red, white, and blue, eating burgers, and watching fireworks, there’s a good chance an African American will be murdered by a police officer. There is also a good chance that an immigrant, locked up in a detention center under illegal pretenses, will succumb to COVID. There’s a good chance some family member of a gun owner will accidentally shoot themselves or a loved one with that gun. There’s a good chance a person of Asian descent will be assaulted on an American street today, and also a good chance that another “essential worker” will find out they are no longer so essential. And there’s a really good chance that most of us will forget that the parks in which we celebrate today have a good chance of being stolen indigenous land.
There are a lot of stripes and death still happening in this stars and stripes country. And if we really want to celebrate this country, then let’s celebrate our alleged freedoms: to assemble, to speak freely, to publicize that which we believe to be true… There is so much opportunity to heal this broken place. And yes, it is broken, just look who we voted into the Oval Office last time. Americans have been reaping what we have been sowing for a very long time; some fields are fertile, others are dust. I’d like to think of Independence Day as a day to remember to think independently of others, to act independent of the crowd. This is an individualistic country but that does not necessarily mean independent. We could be independently collective, going out into the vineyards to toil — for ourselves, and for our fellow citizens (and by that I mean anyone living on this soil).
“Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions!” said Douglass. It is lovely to celebrate our freedom, our families, our faith, but it does not mean we need to turn blind eyes to those living here bereft of the same things. Frederick Douglass was not some well-behaved man in a starched collar to be referenced briefly each February and July. He was a trouble maker. So were Harriet, and Martin, and Shirley; and so are Colin, and Stacey. We admire them but can get a little uncomfortable with the activist sides of these icons. America encourages radicalism — for better and worse, let’s not erase that facet of our history.
On this Independence Day, maybe we can declare freedom from caring what others think — and even feel — and just speak truth through love, for humanity’s sake. Like Douglass said, we have a lot of work to do.
“Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival….”The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Volume II
Pre-Civil War Decade 1850-1860
Philip S. Foner
International Publishers Co., Inc., New York, 1950