I have a tradition on my personal Facebook page of making a lengthy navel-gazing post about the Fourth of July, and what the celebration of the United States’ independence means to someone with an increasingly uncomfortable relationship with the intersection of America’s history and modern Americans’ patriotism.
To be certain, it is nothing new. From the soon-to-be mentioned Frederick Douglass, “somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more” despite having died over a century ago, to David Frum’s new piece in the Atlantic, to all the snarky sermons, tweets, and memes in between, taking America down a peg or two in the midst of its patriotic high is a tradition almost as entrenched as the Fourth itself.
But the tone that I always tried to go for in my reflections is one that balanced concern with conviction, due criticism with due credit. In a word, they were about hope. Hope that for all America is or isn’t, was or wasn’t, celebrating the country’s undeniable progress, believing that it could still be better and dedicating oneself to getting it there was worth celebrating in and of itself.
For what should by now be very obvious reasons, it’s a lot harder to do that in July 2017 than it was in July 2016, or any other July prior. Hell, it wasn’t easy last year, and that was before the election. I don’t begrudge anyone who’s capable of wholeheartedly celebrating this year, but for me and many of mine, this is an aggressively bittersweet Fourth. In light of that, I couldn’t find the spark to write one this year.
But then I reread my post from 2016. And… I dunno. I think it’s pretty okay. And since I’m fairly new to Medium, I figured I could flout the editorial ethics of self-plagiarism and get away with shamelessly reposting it with a self-important introduction.
(It is a national holiday, after all.)
So if you’re anything like me in regards to the many contradictions of this holiday, if you need of a break from the rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air later, and if you find yourself front of a screen at some point, then may these words bring you a modicum of the peace I found in writing them a year ago and in rereading them now.
It’s the Fourth of July.
I feel like I write a variation of this every year. But it’s around the ninth time that you see someone post Frederick Douglass’ speech about the Fourth of July that you start drafting a post in your head, and it’s around the thirteenth time they post it that you turn away from the continuing fallout of the NBA’s Duragnarok (copyright pending) to actually write it.
So, what does the Fourth mean?
Not just to the Negro or the slave of Douglass’ address, names you’d be well advised to avoid applying to their descendants, but to anyone? To the white male property-owners for whom the country was built, who supposedly were the only “equals” of the time deserving of freedom from the tyranny of other white male property owners, and to everyone else who wasn’t lucky enough to tick off that trifecta? Indigenous peoples, women, the very old or very young, the poor, people of color, people with disabilities, people whose religious and gender and sexual and political identities fell and still fall out of the prescribed range of acceptability by the powerful? What does it mean to celebrate the founding of a country that, by any objective metric, has never truly lived up to the promises on which it was founded, for what is now the 240th year running?
Is it about our past? Is it about the scrappy young bucks who shook off the yoke of colonialism from a global superpower to forge their own destiny in the name of freedom, creating a system that stands to this day and has served as an inspiration throughout the ages? Or is it about the fledgling nation that displayed no irony in using similar colonial self-superiority in displacing indigenous Americans, doubling down on slavery, repressing the rights of its own people on arbitrary distinctions, and suppressing opportunities for other peoples to reach self-determination around the world?
Is it about our present? Is it about a country that stands as the sole global hegemon, the most powerful by most objective metrics, that often projects its power to protect the weaker states in the global arena? Or is it about the country that often turns its back on those states, or finds ways to exploit or otherwise take advantage of their suffering for its own gain? Is it about the nation that is forcefully committed to protecting its most vulnerable people, or the one that stubbornly finds new reasons to strip those protections away?
Is it about our military? Is it about a fighting force with a nigh-perfect record when it comes to engaging the forces of other nations, helping turn the tide toward the right side of history during the World Wars, a fighting force comprised of some of the bravest and most skilled individuals the world has ever known? Is it about that same military occupying Latin American states, or fighting wars in defense of “American interests” owing to the reverberations of foreign policy decisions thirty years prior, or a political apparatus that uses the bravery and sacrifice of that fighting force to shame those who criticize their missions into silence as unpatriotic traitors?
Is it about economics? Is it about the entrepreneurial spirit and rugged determination that has created a real-world wealth that mimics biblical Babylon, the envy of nations the world over, a beacon of hope and prosperity that attracted and continues to attract people everywhere to seek their fortunes here? Is it about the countless people on whose back this wealth was created, people who never saw an iota of that wealth in their lives and died without any reasonable expectation that their descendants would, or the widening gap between the exploitative haves and exploited have-nots to this day?
Is it about a nebulous and fluxy future that not even the wisest among us can predict anymore, one that our past and present alike indicate has as many opportunities for light as it does darkness, as much potential for hope as it does horror?
Is it just about eating red meat, singing country songs, getting hammered, wearing striped bathing suits, and blowing shit up?
Is it any of this? Or is it all of it? The good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful, the disgrace and the pride? Is the Fourth about recognizing the sum totality of everything America means, has meant, will mean, and was promised to mean?
And if it isn’t, why can’t it be?
America, in all that those seven letters entail (including the hubris to use the name of two continents as an everyday appellation for but one of its countries), is messy. America is dirty. America is grimy, gritty, and sometimes downright ugly, with nary a redeeming factor. America is fundamentally about contradictions, and it always has been. America has never been a true city on a hill, above reproach and beyond critique. The path of its progress has not been a rhythmic march forward for all the world to follow; it’s more of a drunken cha-cha as choreographed by an emphysemic walrus with two left feet who had one drink too many at the open bar. America is about a few steps forward, a few steps back, a couple shimmies from side to side, falling over and passing out, forgetting what direction you were going, and getting up and staggering around some more without realizing that you pissed your pants in your sleep, and hoping that in the end, you’ll still get where you need to.
It has never been pleasant, it has never been pretty, and it has never been perfect.
It will, in all likelihood, never be perfect.
And for this adopted son, that is where the beauty lies.
The America in which Douglass delivered his address in 1852 was a drastically different one than the one that exists now, some hundred sixty years later. The mammoth in the room at the time was the continued existence of slavery, and indeed, the fact that it had been allowed to exist even a day after the lofty ideals espoused in July 1776 was something that Douglass refused to let anyone who celebrated the country’s ostensible freedom walk away from. Douglass sought to light a fire under the asses of his audience, who were all too happy to sit and compliment his eloquence while tacitly endorsing the silence of countless people in bondage, who were all too proud of a liberty they were born into that he had to fight his way to attain. The hypocrisies of his time reverberate to this day, which is what makes the text of his address ring as loudly now as it did then.
But to position it solely as a condemnatory screed, or to excerpt only the fieriest passages, misrepresents Douglass’ words, however inadvertently or slightly. If you read the full speech, Douglass revealed an intention to do more than shame America for failing to live up to its own promises. He sought to inspire it to start making amends. The final paragraphs of the speech show that the only thing equal to Douglass’ disgust at slavery’s persistence was his belief that it would eventually end, even if he didn’t know when. He couldn’t have known that the Civil War was on the horizon, or that the Emancipation Proclamation and Thirteenth Amendment were coming in the next decade. All he had was hope was in the creeping egalitarianism of the country, and a ceaseless determination to do whatever it took make his hopes a reality.
And when the dust settled and slavery abolished, Douglass kept the pressure on, advocating for black rights, women’s rights, indigenous rights, and immigrants’ rights all the way until the end of his life. In looking back on the life of President Lincoln, he refused to let Honest Abe off the hook for the political equivocations regarding slavery, but he also recognized the progress Lincoln helped usher in, and the risks he faced to make it happen. Douglass never missed the forest for the trees, nor the other way around. He saw the good and the bad, and never let his perception of the one cloud his vision of the other. His belief in a brighter future drew strength not only from his spirituality or his own optimism, but from a lived experience that showed that progress, however slow and however watered-down, was possible. The Douglass of 1852 could not have known the America that would exist in his final year, 1895, nor would he have likely been satisfied with what he saw. But he would gleefully acknowledge that progress that the intervening forty-odd years and brought.
That was the one quibble I had about Jesse Williams’ barnstormer of an acceptance speech at the BET Awards. It was dope, no doubt, and that’s not something the tittering of any talking head from the alt-right can take away from him. (Sidenote: can somebody please run an ancestry search on Tomi Lahren? I think I’d piss myself with laughter if it comes out that Ms. “Our Ancestors Fought to Free Yours” is descended from slave-owners or a Confederate general).
But his passage about “not wanting to hear” about how things are better now than they were four hundred or three hundred years ago in the light of Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, and Eric Garner’s deaths rang false. Because he’s right in saying that it’s not good enough. It can’t be good enough if these things keep happening, and if people continue to defend them as twists of fate rather than examples of a larger problem, or worse, as fully justified occurrences.
It is not good enough.
But it is, undeniably, better.
The mere existence of the past progress that’s been made can never wipe out the evils that persist in the present, nor can it preclude the evolution of new ones in the future. But conversely, the resilience of those evils can’t invalidate what has been done, what countless people in the past fought for every day of their lives to change. If you brought Douglass from 1852 into 2016 and let him absorb the totality of America today, of all it has accomplished and addressed and redressed since his passing, we’d see a man marvel at what his nation had become and could still be.
And again, I think we’re ill-served in failing to properly acknowledge that progress, especially in the face of a goal as unattainable as the widespread realization of the American Dream. If we don’t, even as nothing more than an impetus to push us even further, then what is the worth of anything we accomplish? What good is ‘good,’ ‘better,’ or ‘great,’ if we discard them all for failing to be perfect? What is the purpose of paying respect to our giants if we can’t stand on their shoulders? What becomes of America’s future if we allow the many sins of the past and present choke out the good that also exists there?
I don’t know.
I don’t know much of anything anymore. If nothing else, this election has exposed the ugliness that a lot of us have always known or at least suspected was always there, and it isn’t to our credit that such ugliness still exists. I don’t know if America is good, or great. I don’t know if it ever was. I don’t know that it ever will be, for everyone lucky enough to call it home. I just know, as Douglass did, that it can be.
That as a New York ex-pat living in France once wrote, criticizing your country’s inequities is ultimately an act of love, not hate. That as a poet from Harlem once wrote, America the reality has never been America the ideal, but we have to continue believing that it can be; that it has to be. That as a big-eared kid from Hawaii once said, the union may never be perfect, but there is always something to be perfected. Let other people decide goodness or greatness, if it’s something we have to go back to or something we’ve already reached. I’m with Douglass, with Baldwin, with Hughes, with the artiest formerly known as Obama; as long as the rest of us never settle for good enough, as long as we always push for better, as long as we keep getting closer to perfection, then that, paradoxically, will be good enough.
Every century, a little closer. Every generation, a little more. Every decade, every year, maybe every day. Just a little bit better than we were before. And if we can pull that off, if we can commit to just being better, then the Fourth, and every Fourth to follow, will always be something worth celebrating.
Here’s to two hundred and forty more.
Have a safe and happy Fourth of July, everyone. Here’s hoping the new Spider-Man movie’s good.
As always, I invite you to follow along for more at With Apologies to Bill Bennett on Facebook. One day, I might even explain what the name means.