And each year, I cry.
Mine is a bittersweet cry, born from love of country, and from rage against country.
To cope with my reverent pain, in the face of reading the literary and philosophical dream that is the Constitution of our great country, each Fourth of July I let myself dream a little dream.
I dream of what our nation would have been, could have been, should have been, had all the grievances against King George III that our Founding Fathers been aired in indeliable print with that same brave collective voice that demanded, as divine right, "Liberty or Death!":
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another...Follow below the fold for more.
This passionate language affirming the God-given right of human dignity is not alchemy. It is not fantasy. It is, instead, history. The paragraph above was originally included in the recitation of grievances against King George included in the first draft of the Declaration of Independence submitted to the Continental Congress by Thomas Jefferson on July 1, 1776.
It raged in moral horror against the system of chattel slavery as practiced by King George's empire, and in no uncertain moral terms grounded America's birth in, at least in part, an overt desire to end the inherent godlessness of the institution of chattel slavery as a violation of Christianity itself. It noted the religious hypocrisy even as it made clear that the notation was enlightened self-interest and the goal was, in part, to avoid a logical end that the king himself allegedly encouraged: rage and revenge flowing from oppressed to oppressor.
This declaration against slavery, as originally drafted, makes clear that, from the beginning of our nation the question of What to Do With the African has been at the very heart of our national identity.
But it was rejected, and deleted. And forgotten—even by those who each Fourth of July, open the hearts and say We are All Americans, today. Most of us have never been taught about this missing paragraph; it is unimportant, because it is absent. And, because of its absence, the day of liberty, of freedom, of independence, the day in which all men of the United States could truly embrace the rights given to them by the Creator to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, was deferred, for 87 years after the eloquence of our Founding Fathers and their utopian vision was first heard the world over. Eighty-nine years if you include the Great State of TexasTM.
Today, it is this knowing of the truth about what was, and what could have been in America that many African-Americans contend with on the Fourth of July. Many of us do not even celebrate the holiday since, after all, it has nothing to do with our rights, our freedom, our independence from anyone. That date is celebrated today in the form of Juneteenth. But most do. After all, we are still Americans. We built this country even as most of us were excluded from its utopian promise for nearly 100 years legally, and arguably, still are nearly 230 years later.
The love-hate relationship that many African-Americans have with the Fourth of July is not a historical artifact. It continues to plague us as a people, and at times can be quite confusing, even to those like myself who consider themselves well-informed, well-educated and American:
The pain from our love of America probably stems from the knowledge that the greatest of the great Americans, including the Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson and their progency, including the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln himself, never wanted us to be part of America. They wanted us Away. Other. Outside, because America was not for us, even though the chattel enslavement of millions had in fact built America, in large part:
So when I think of what the Fourth of July means to me, what it means to many black folks like me, I am left confused. How can anyone fail to love the vision of America set forth in the Declaration of Independence? How can anyone not be stirred to the depths of their very soul, reading the steadfast passion with which the Founding Fathers asserted the inalienable rights of man? How can African-Americans feel anything but the same love, even as we hate the bastardization of the founding vision of America to further a new king's agenda—the agenda of King Cotton?
It's hard to love something so much yet hate it so much at the same time. Yet it is important for African-Americans in particular to confront that hardness, to face the vision of America even as we continue to hold it to task for what has been done to us, and continues to be done to us. It is our unique experience of America that calls us, especially, to work to solve its problems, including the problems of poverty and race. Because, Dr. King once said, in a sermon he delivered on the Fourth of July, 40 years ago, called The American Dream:
And I tell you this morning, my friends, the reason we got to solve this problem here in America: Because God somehow called America to do a special job for mankind and the world. (Yes, sir, Make it plain) Never before in the history of the world have so many racial groups and so many national backgrounds assembled together in one nation. And somehow if we can’t solve the problem in America the world can’t solve the problem, because America is the world in miniature and the world is America writ large. And God set us out with all of the opportunities. He set us between two great oceans; made it possible for us to live with some of the great natural resources of the world. And there he gave us through the minds of our forefathers a great creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.That is the burden of being American, a burden that we should celebrate today even as we celebrate America itself. Each of us are called to do our small part, whether the personal or political.
I am 52 years old, 53 soon. I have reared three children with God's guidance, two of whom are grown, one nearly so. They have been blessed with keen intellect, physical beauty and brilliant minds even though each is taking fundamentally different paths in life. Yet I cannot overlook that their path has been different from mine, yet still too familiar. In our one family, we have different Experiences of AmericaTM. To my immigrant husband, America is The Arrogant Master of the UniverseTM, but also "My Wife's Home, and now Mine." To my children, of mixed racial and religious heritage, their vision of America is born of the hopeful cynicism that is sometimes created when one is born of a politically passionate black mother and white father, when one faces both the benefits and the burdens in a world in which they have personally largely escaped the trials of being black because of their birth, yet still suffer the indignities of the friends and neighbors they live next to, because they are not so fortunate. They are both blessed and cursed.
And to me, the most patriotic of us all, America is ... Home.The Home that despite my parents' blackness nonetheless yielded, through their passionate determination, a chance to send their eldest daughter to the best public high schools, best private colleges and best law schools in the country. That allowed my parents at least the semblance of the potentiality of freedom, even as they grew up dirt poor in the segregated sharecropping Deep South and could not access that concept of freedom for themselves. The closest they got to a glimpse of it, even, came only after each separately fled to the North. Yet even there, their blackness meant that life was for the most part only freedom from, not freedom to, when it came to living their dreams.
So on the Fourth of July, I spend the day thinking about my (recently late) father, the man who but for Jim Crow and poverty could have been a brilliant mathematician. About my mother, dead nearly nine years now, and her love of the flag and Fourth of July, despite having gone to secretarial school, wanting to go into business someday and finding no one who would hire her into an office when she arrived in first Kentucky and then New York City.
I think about the life faced by the tens of millions, today, in a country that despite all we have given it thinks about We Who Are Dark last, if at all, when it comes to making choices about what to fight for. The America whose behavior makes clear that it values us only what we can still give in true "what have you done for me lately?" fashion and demands routinely that we convey our political power to whatever cause it deems most important while allowing us to ask for nothing overt in return as a reward for our loyalty. Forgetting what we have already given, the millions of us whose ancestors were brought here against their will to build this land largely for free (not as immigrants since that is a voluntary condition; do folks know how wounding it is when folks' political cry is "we are all immigrants?", given that?) as chattel. I think about how America and Americans value what we have already given so little that one cannot even discuss the idea of reparations with friend and foe alike for the most part.
I cry, yet again, thinking about this.
Yet despite it all, I still love America. Not for what it has been, to me, and to mine. I rail against it for its failings, and always will until it does right by our people (and Native Americans, who too have suffered similar—worse—fates as it relates to their culture and collective survival). But, nonetheless, it doesn't stop me from wanting desperately to be part of the original, unedited vision of equality that appeared in the draft Declaration. The vision that has never had a chance, not really, to actually operate on the ground. I think that is true for many of us African-Americans who are politically involved, at whatever level, when we have our quiet moments of reflection. This is not because of what America is today. It is instead for what America could have been, and might still be even as we may well not live to see it.
The Fourth of July reminds me why I fight for the dream of America, even as I fight against it's reality. I fight because America is my Home. By choice.
Happy Fourth of July, one and all.