We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future.
-Frederick Douglas, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
I’ve often thought about the reasons we celebrate our independence on the day that we do. On July 4, 1776, The Revolution was just beginning, and wouldn’t be won until 1783. This supposed “land of the free” would still have legal slavery until 1865, exclusionary voting laws reaching well into the twentieth century, and de facto segregation that lasts to this very day. Even our national anthem has racist roots! (I just learned this today and was flabbergasted). Yet on this semi-arbitrary, symbolic day, we are expected to celebrate our flawed nation with unfettered patriotism. As I type this, festooned in red white and blue from my color-coordinated nails to my navy keds, I feel conflicted at celebrating a victory that only held true for white, landholding men. To paraphrase Mr. Douglass, what to the young, black, 21st century woman is the Fourth of July?
The USA is the only home I’ve ever known. She is a country that aspires to greatness, but has not yet met her potential for equality and freedom for all people. As Lin-Manuel Miranda says woefully in Hamilton, America is a “great unfinished symphony” (emphasis mine). He is most likely referencing Horace M. Kallen’s wonderful 1915 essay on celebrating America as an orchestra of unique voices, rather than with the “melting pot” metaphor of assimilation. He writes about the panic surrounding an influx of immigrants at the time: “Americans of British ancestry find that certain possessions of theirs, which may be lumped under the word ‘Americanism,’ are in jeopardy….Respect for ancestors, pride of race! Time was when these would have been repudiated as the enemies of democracy, as the antithesis of the fundamentals of our republic….” In our modern times of xenophobia, hatred, and re-emboldened racists, it unfortunately still a relevant sentiment. Our nation’s identity comes not from homogeneity but from a rich diversity of ideas, cultures, and innovations.
The “Make America Great Again” narrative by a certain orange candidate is less a rallying cry of hope than a deep-seated fear/hatred of the unknown. Well then let us unknown, unheard, unloved masses of PoC, women, queer folk, immigrants, and more rise up together and remind the world that we are the ones who can make America great.
Our nation is 240 today. I criticize her out of great love. I love my heritage of strong, resilient black folk. I love apple pie and basketball and Hollywood. I love our foamy beaches and great purple mountains and rolling green fields. I love New York City and San Francisco and St. Louis. It is this love that inspires me to fight for a better America. To recognize a past and present cut through with ills including but surely not limited to slavery, racism, genocide, sexism, rape culture, classism, and islamophobia. I want to raise my future children in an America that tells the truth about who built this country, that welcomes all of its inhabitants with open arms. I want to live in an America that I can truly, unabashedly celebrate as a nation that belongs to us all.
It seems far fetched, but hey, a girl can dream.
Love and theatre (and I Too Sing America),