Wednesday, July 4, 2012

What do we celebrate today?

Last night as I was thinking about the death of Andy Griffith and the July 4th holiday coming, I remembered an article Tim Wise wrote four years ago on the heels of the Jeremiah Wright controversy. It had a pretty profound effect on me as I contemplated the American history I had been taught both in school and in the general culture.
What Jeremiah Wright knows, and told his flock–though make no mistake, they already knew it–is that 9/11 was neither the first, nor worst act of terrorism on American soil. The history of this nation for folks of color, was for generations, nothing less than an intergenerational hate crime, one in which 9/11s were woven into the fabric of everyday life: hundreds of thousands of the enslaved who died from the conditions of their bondage; thousands more who were lynched (as many as 10,000 in the first few years after the Civil War, according to testimony in the Congressional Record at the time); millions of indigenous persons wiped off the face of the Earth. No, to some, the horror of 9/11 was not new. To some it was not on that day that "everything changed." To some, everything changed four hundred years ago, when that first ship landed at what would become Jamestown. To some, everything changed when their ancestors were forced into the hulls of slave ships at Goree Island and brought to a strange land as chattel. To some, everything changed when they were run out of Northern Mexico, only to watch it become the Southwest United States, thanks to a war of annihilation initiated by the U.S. government. To some, being on the receiving end of terrorism has been a way of life. Until recently it was absolutely normal in fact.

But white folks have a hard time hearing these simple truths. We find it almost impossible to listen to an alternative version of reality. Indeed, what seems to bother white people more than anything, whether in the recent episode, or at any other time, is being confronted with the recognition that black people do not, by and large, see the world like we do; that black people, by and large, do not view America as white people view it. We are, in fact, shocked that this should be so, having come to believe, apparently, that the falsehoods to which we cling like a kidney patient clings to a dialysis machine, are equally shared by our darker-skinned compatriots...

Most white people desire, or perhaps even require the propagation of lies when it comes to our history. Surely we prefer the lies to anything resembling, even remotely, the truth. Our version of history, of our national past, simply cannot allow for the intrusion of fact into a worldview so thoroughly identified with fiction. But that white version of America is not only extraordinarily incomplete, in that it so favors the white experience to the exclusion of others; it is more than that; it is actually a slap in the face to people of color, a re-injury, a reminder that they are essentially irrelevant, their concerns trivial, their lives unworthy of being taken seriously. In that sense, and what few if any white Americans appear capable of grasping at present, is that "Leave it Beaver" and "Father Knows Best," portray an America so divorced from the reality of the times in which they were produced, as to raise serious questions about the sanity of those who found them so moving, so accurate, so real. These iconographic representations of life in the U.S. are worse than selective, worse than false, they are assaults to the humanity and memory of black people, who were being savagely oppressed even as June Cleaver did housework in heels and laughed about the hilarious hijinks of Beaver and Larry Mondello.
I grew up on "Leave it to Beaver," "Father Knows Best," and "The Andy Griffith Show." And as well-meaning as some of the people in those shows might have been, they are a big part of the reason I was so blinded to what was going on all around me. They fooled me into thinking that they represented what was happening in America at the time. Even now, way too many people look back on television shows like that and long for the "good old days" that are actually a fantasy that never happened except in the willfully blind eyes of those who chose not to see.

That is definitely NOT the America I celebrate because it is a lie.

As we all know, when President Obama addressed the Wright controversy, he talked about our efforts "to form a more perfect union."
"We the people, in order to form a more perfect union ..." — 221 years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America's improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars, statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation's original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least 20 more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.

Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution — a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty and justice and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part — through protests and struggles, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience, and always at great risk — to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.
What I celebrate today are all the times we've "perfected our union" by opening our arms a bit wider to say "You belong" to people who have been left out. We've had a few of those moments in the last few years.

Like on election night 2008.

The repeal of DADT.

The day DREAMers had a reason to dream again.

That is the America I celebrate this July 4th.

Its been building slowly over these last 226 years and still has a ways to go.


  1. I don't usually go in for American exceptionalism -- but there is this: more than most nations, I think we see ourselves as a work in progress. We started with a statement of truly revolutionary ideals, giving ourselves a monumentally difficult goal. The image of what America should be is always beyond us, above us, glimmering in our vision like an ice-capped mountain peak, sun-bright even after all the landscape below it is shadowed. Every step in its direction is up a hard steep path.

    1. I was just thinking that what we celebrate is always in front of us rather than behind us.


  2. Mo'nin', Ms. Pants

    And, as you describe this day in this fashion, I, too, celebrate with you.

    DAMN, you get it (so does Tim. but, you've put enough of you out there such that it is MOST clear what is actually you)

    And, THANK YOU SOOOO much as you put it out there for others to "get it", too.

    Not to mention that you have just been SERiously JAMMIN' over these past two weeks (and, no....I hadn't been amongst the 25 million. ahhhh, talent).

    You continue to be MOST sincerely appreciated.

    Stay well and stay "on it", my friend.

    1. Thanks Blackman. And SO good to hear from you!

  3. I saw more than a few of those Leave It To Beaver episodes not too long ago. It wasn't as wholesome as we were led to believe. Not that it was an early version of Married With Children but there were some sharp eyed comments that made you realize things were not as clean cut as shows like Father Knows Best portrayed.

    They're were some telling observations on bullying, low self esteem, alcoholism through a child's eyes, divorce through a child's eyes, parents a little too unrestrained in their verbal and physical abuse of their children (turns out Ward and June were the exceptions rather than the rule)and the crushing effects of peer pressure.

  4. I was just thinking that what we celebrate is always in front of us rather than behind us.


  5. Oh, thank you so much fot this post. Each day I visit you to get my feet back on the ground, me chin up and to get filled with the hope of tomorrow. You don't disappoint.

    1. And thank you so much for that! It really means alot!

  6. Thanks for the Tim Wise + Rev Wright + "More Perfect...." speech! You combined them perfectly! It is just too convenient to shove all that pain down and then wonder why people are using dope. If only America could have the conversation Tim Wise wants to have maybe we could move forward. I think the reason repugs/Teaparty folks are so upset is because PBO is their worse nightmare come true. He challenges every notion that he is not their equal. That he is smarter, more decent, more humane with more depth and substance is very difficult for them to accept.

    So we move forward! Some of them will come with us and some of them will not.