The Fourth of July: A Tale of Two Cities

Man, it was a scorcher out here this weekend.  Lots of news fluff pieces about the heat and 4th of July revelers — people hitting the National Mall at about 3pm to be positioned for that evening’s fireworks.  Lots of “freedom”, “liberty” being spoken of.  You know.  Patriotic displays, parades and festivities.

And it’s all good.  We have so many freedoms.  We are lucky or blessed to be alive in this era of history.  And many of us are lucky to be here in the U.S. in the here and now.  It’s a beautiful concept and a beautiful place in a unique way.  No doubt.

I can say what I want.  I’m not rich and yet my standard of living is luxurious compared to many on the planet.  I benefit from the latest technological advances.  It’s an age of exponential growth, independence and freedom.  I am thankful.

The concept of the United States of America deserves much celebration.

However … I don’t consider myself patriotic.  That’s probably due to my aversion to groups and group-think as much as anything else, though.  I can’t explain it.  It is what it is.

So the other day, I saw a black guy on some TV show saying how America is blessed because God gave it to us.  I did a double take, rewound the Tivo a few seconds and listened again.  My first thought was, “Who is us??”

I’m not militant or revolutionary but that struck me as an odd statement.  Maybe it shouldn’t, but I’m not gonna lie.  I bristled at the comment.  I don’t agree with a lot of the comments and sentiment I’ve heard over the past few days on KPFA and WPFW.   Still, I can’t ignore the intellectual bile roiling up when — from the hypocrisy.  From the “America is great” crowd that thinks they can ignore the past and its shaping of the present.  America is great but it is scarred and flawed.  Its greatness comes from its ability to adapt and grow, not from rigidity, jingoism or chauvinism.

This is a passage from Frederick Douglass’ “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” or some are calling it “What to the American Slave is the Fourth of July?” from a speech he gave in 1852.  I’m copying this from the pbs site:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

That got me thinking

About something I’ve never thought about before.  On July 4th, 1776 the Declaration of Independence was adopted.  Awesome.

It has been celebrated annually ever since.  Makes sense.

That means that the United States of America (declared so at that point), the people of the United States of America were celebrating independence, liberty and freedom every year.

That means that while chattel slavery was ongoing, Americans were celebrating the 4th of July.  Middle passage, torture, maiming, kidnapping, genocide, splitting up families, lynching.

Skipping ahead a few generations, my parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents — while they were being denied services and dignity and equality throughout the segregation era up until the mid to late 60’s, every year on July the 4th America was celebrating freedom, liberty and independence.

That just blows my mind.  Can you imagine that?  I think I told you the story my uncle told me.  When he was a kid, his parents would drive with him and his siblings down to South Carolina.  Probably would take about, what, 10 hours?  12 hours?  They had to do it in one go because most hotels and motels didn’t allow black people.  When they would pull up to a gas station to get gas, the kids would quickly pile out to go see if the gas station had bathrooms for colored people.  If they didn’t … out of luck.

I imagine my parents’ parents with a car load of kids being turned away from a diner or hotel while fireworks are exploding overhead and flags are waved.

That Was the Past

But that was the past, right.  Listening to WPFW’s Jazz and Justice program today — a lot of black radio stations are by older black people for older black people.  That’s fine.  It is what it is.  But there’s a certain toxicity to all that racial angst that they have.  I haven’t lived what they lived but I understand where it comes from.  They, obviously, aren’t entirely, like, misguided or wrong.  They’re just stuck in a loop.

Yes, the Jim Crow era ended as we know it in the 60’s.  We’re still a segregated society, though.  Well, maybe that’s changing now, too, especially with immigrants of all kinds moving into whatever neighborhoods they can gain a foothold in.

I’m admittedly freaked out a little by all of the Hispanic and African people in the area.  The change is palpable.  I don’t deny my own xenophobia.  I’m not proud of it, but it is a natural response to change.

I’m digressing.  America the beautiful has grown.  Attitudes have shifted to the point where it’s not acceptable to be openly racist — unless you’re a conservative talk show host.  There it’s okay as long as you don’t say the word “nigger” or “spic”.  Heck.  Even homophobia is slowly but surely being disavowed.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Good riddance to it.

Black POTUS, Attorney General.  Another woman in the role of Secretary of State.  Head of the RNC is a black man.  Jewish woman about to be placed on the Supreme Court.  Heck, the next President might be female.  Times they are a-changing.

And yet we practice a form of slavery.  Is it the case that societies need an underclass?  An imbalance upon which to balance?  The immigrant population, namely illegal immigrants, are an underclass of exploited labor on a nation wide level.  It’s absolutely stunning.  They were allowed in, blind eyes turned, to provide a cheap labor force and now that they’re here we’re offended by their presence.  Many of them don’t speak English fluently, which puts them at a disadvantage and demotes them in our society.  You ever come across someone working and they’re hesitant to look you in the eye?

It’s craziness.

Personally, I think that as long as there have been human beings people have been migratory.  That, in itself, shouldn’t be a crime.  We should have allowances for that fact especially when our trade policies tilt the table to exacerbate the disproportionate opportunities.  Drug gang massacres and starvation on one side of the border; Dave & Busters and hot dog eating contests on the other side of the border.

I’m not saying that it’s all perfect and rosy and that there aren’t consequences to illegal immigration.  I believe that a country has a right and responsibility to strictly protect and control its borders.  Heck.  Mexico, apparently, has very harsh immigration laws, which is just about the most ironic thing I’ve ever heard.

But our collective response to a problem of our own indifference and greed is draconian and cold.  And sometimes inhumane.

I was driving around Arlington or Alexandria last Fall and you know who puts up the Christmas lights on all those trees and light posts around here?  Central American immigrants.  Who does the brick work?  Cleans up?  Prepares your food?  Is a nanny for your kids?


So please do celebrate.  I hope you had a great weekend and that next year’s celebrations are even boomier and more healthily patriotic than this year’s.  I hope it also has more substance.  I hope it’s more consistent with our ideals.  I hope that when we think of freedom, independence and liberty we’ll be wishing it for everyone.  And working toward it.  I hope it’s not just the empty rhetoric of an election year.  “I love freedom.”

Yes, there’s racism aplenty.  There’s ignorance and hypocrisy.  There’s vapid politics, division and partisan buffoonery.

There is also greatness and opportunity.  Freedom, liberty and independence are words that I do not like to use in vain, so to speak.  When I use them, I’m obviously not trying to score points, use them as coded language for the halcyon days (for some) of the 50’s or any manipulative fashion.

I sincerely do wish for freedom, liberty and independence for the world and not just the USA.

To my Central American immigrant friends — I”m still adjusting.  Heck.  I don’t even mind that Patapsco is practically an all Hispanic park if you judge by all the picnic areas.  It’s great to see families and friends getting together and bonding.  Not enough of that going on these days.  But do you have to drive on the grass to park?  Come on now.  It’s not that far of a walk to the river.

Happy 4 day work week, everyone.

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