As this nation celebrates its 238th birthday I am annually conflicted with the holiday. For me, its a day off work and in this case paid I may add so its all good. As a youth it meant fireworks, hotdogs and picnics. I don’t recall a lot of talk about independence from England with the exception of 1976. That was the 200th year or Bicentennial. Otherwise, back then as it is today its about the festivities and in some years as this one a three day weekend.
As an American of African descent I am not sure how to comprehend this day. I love my country for sure. I love it enough to embrace its virtues and criticize its faults. I am a patriot but not a nationalist. Also I happened to have recently read Dick Gregory’s book “Callous On My Soul.” Talk about great Americans… Gregory is one of the greatest Americans we have ever produced. Anyway, in this book I have learned so much more about both the virtues and vices of this country we call America. And considering the racism, classicism, poverty, and arrogance we so readily embrace, as a young nation we still have far to go to be as great as we think we are. In many ways we live in separate Americas. One for white and one for black, one for rich and one for poor. One for those who are in and another for those who are out. And yet when we celebrate these type of holidays we are expected to embrace the meanings in the same fashion.
I think of September 11th and how that forever changed many in America in terms of how they viewed their own patriotism and vulnerability. But what about the many people of African descent, Native American as well as poor whites have viewed their patriotism and vulnerability. For this I reference Gloria Ladson-Billings who argues:
Over and over people in this country describe the world as pre-September 11 and post-September 11. Yes, this is a significant date, for now, but it takes history to determine whether or not it will become a teleological fault line. For me time and chronology can be divided in an infinite number of combinations: Pre-April 4, 1968 (assassination of MLK) and post-April 4, 1968, pre summer of 1963 and post-summer of 1963 (bombing of the little girls in the Birmingham church), pre-summer of 1955 and post-summer of 1955 (murder of Emmett Till). Each of these events made me feel less safe, less secure, less able to lay claim to any notion of myself as American.
This illustrates a voice of Americans rarely heard and mostly ignored. This makes sense in that in 1776 independence was not meant for people who were not Europeans. So in essence the freedom they sought was also freedom to hold and sell slaves, freedom to rape and oppress others etc. And even if one does not believe in reparations certainly a sincere apology may be at the very least useful. This probably won’t happen in my lifetime – and thus the conundrum.
As Michael Eric Dyson explains in his book, Pride, “During July 4 celebrations, some blacks spurn the holiday altogether, because the freedom celebrated is segregated by skin color and even class at times. They resonate with Langston Hughes’ plaintive poem. “Let America Be America Again,” when he says, “America never was America to me/…(There’s never been equality for me, /Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’) Other blacks are torn. One the one hand, they completely resonate with their bitterly disappointed brothers and sisters. One the other hand, they acknowledge that black blood, sweat, and tears have built this country. Hence they echo Martin Luther King Jr. when he declared, “I ain’t goin’ nowhere.” King was responding, perhaps to mean-spirited critics who would dare deny blacks who fought for the nation’s freedom their right to criticize American in love as a gesture of profound patriotism. Such critics use a pat line that is truly trite: “If you don’t like America, go back to where you came from.” But as Deborah Mathis says of blacks, “Most of us – 91 percent – were born and have lived only here.”
One thing is for sure… without the diversity that is evident in this nation – America would not be what it is today. By this I mean in terms of industry, commerce, and culture. And good bad or indifferent, people of color ARE and will always be a large part of America. I close with the words of Stevie Wonder who in his song Black Man (written for the 1976 Bicentennial celebration) spoke truth to power when he said:
Now I know the birthday of a nation
Is a time when a country celebrates
But as your hand touches your heart
Remember we all played a part in America
To help that banner wave