Monday, July 04, 2005

Bittersweet Fourth of July

Each 4th of July, I see the beauty of our flag, the universality of the love for our country that far too many show far too infrequently, and read the extraordinary beauty of our country's Declaration of Independence.

And each year, I cry. A bittersweet cry, born from love, and from anger.
To cope with my reverent pain, in the face of reading literary and philosophical beauty that is the Constitution of this great country, each 4th of July I let myself dream a little dream.

I dream of what our nation would be, could have been, should have been, had all the grievances against King George that our Founding Fathers been aired 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...

This passionate language affirming the God-given right of human dignity is not alchemy.  It is not fantasy.  It is, instead, history.  This paragraph was 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.

But it was rejected, and deleted.  And forgotten - even by those who each 4th 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.  89 years if you include the Great State of Texas TM.

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 4th 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 that consider myself well informed, well-educated and American:

Fourth of July and African-Americans

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:

The Efforts to Send us Away

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 4th 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 43 years old, 44 soon.  I have reared three children with God's guidance, two of who 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 Universe TM, 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....America. Home. The place that despite my parents Blackness nonetheless offered them a chance to send their eldest daughter to the best public schools, to go to college, to go to law school, that many other countries would not have. That allowed them at least the semblance of freedom, even as they grew up in the segregated Deep South and True Freedom came to them only after they fled to the North, although even then it was only freedom from, not freedom to. So on the Fourth of July, I spend the day thinking about my father, the man who but for Jim Crow and poverty could have been a brilliant mathemetician.  About my mother, and her love of both the flag and singing in the church, destroyed through the retreat into alcoholism that so many Black women choose as the alternative to the retreat in unthinking religion. I think about the life faced by the tens of millions, today, in a country that despite all we have given it thinks about us last, if at all and seems to value us only what we can still give - especially political power, not for what we already have given.

And I cry, yet again, thinking about this.

Because 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, but nonetheless want to be part of the vision that has never had a chance, not really, to operate on the ground.  And I think that is true for many of us African-Americans who are politically involved, at whatever level.  But it is not because of what it is. It is instead for what it could have been, and might still be.  And am reminded why I fight for it, even as I fight against it - because it is my Home.  By choice.

Happy Fourth of July, one and all.


At 6:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful setting for your words, Shanikka... your daughter did an excellent job.

This wonderful, reflective piece echoes my thoughts on days like the 4th. There are so many conflicting emotions and ideas - as well as ideals - that I usually wind up spending the day quietly, reading or writing, and thinking about what could have been, what stiill could be and how to make it so.

Thanks for writing this.


At 2:49 PM, Blogger Shanikka said...

Thanks for commenting Nanette - you're my first!

I wonder how many folks feel the same, and feel that they are alone in feeling the same. On the 4th, I went for fireworks with my family - same as we've done for more than 20 years now, and this year - maybe because of the war, maybe because of the economy, whatever maybe - and it was clear by the end of the day that this year's Fourth was having a far deeper emotional impact on me than usual.

I'll pass on your kudos to the young one. She is a dear and is being very helpful although the site has a long way to go yet.

At 7:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You'll get lots more comments soon. I've been a fan of your writing (even in comments) for a long time, and I'm sure there are others... people will just have to realize you are here!

After I read your July 4 piece, I wandered around the web to places I knew (or assumed) were written by Black people... and found many of the same sentiments. Not that they are not always in the background, but there is just something about this year... more so than other years we've had wars and not so great economies and so on.

Looking on the not so optimistic side, we're the canaries in the mine. Looking on a much brighter side, we're the vanguard of a renewed commitment to the principles of justice and equality and so on.

Either way, we're something. Too much coincidence for me ;).

On a different topic, I've published a small online international magazine ( for a few years... all volunteer, as it's not really a commercial enterprise. Anyway, would you consider having some of your work in there from time to time? Full byline credit and a link to your blog of course. It's okay to say no, I'm not easily offended, especially as we don't pay anyone anything, lol.


At 3:08 PM, Blogger Shanikka said...

Wow, I'm flattered. Sure, it would be fine. And no worries - at present, I don't write for money unless it's for a judge with a paying client so that's not an issue.

Your point about us being canaries in the mine is spot on, as is your optimistic point about our looking forward to a renewed commitment. Who knows? Maybe after Dubbya we've all come to appreciate just a little bit more than we did before, all unresolved issues causing bittersweet sentiments notwithstanding.

Oh well, if anyone is good at keepin' on keepin on, it's Black folk.

At 10:20 AM, Blogger Nanette said...

Great! I grabbed something before you changed your mind ;).

The Darfur article is perfect, as I was going to try and put something together on that anyway. I have put it online here:

Yesterday Rwanda, Today Darfur . Take a look when you get a chance, make sure all the information and all that is how you want it (I just took it off this page). My email is nanette at humanbeams dot com , if you'd like anything changed. And thanks!

I think your "maybe after Dubya" comments are just right, as well. So many people are taking this time to not only work to limit the damage this admin is doing, but also to notice what isn't getting done or talked about on our side... and to make up their minds to change that. I think more and more are getting to the point where it doesn't matter who is elected... they'll not be getting a free pass, as some have sometimes before.


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