what, to the revolutionary, is the 4th of July?
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”
~”What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Frederick Douglass July 5, 1852.
My least favorite holiday is upon us once again. The 4th of July is easily the most paradoxical, PTSD-triggering, carcinogenic holiday that is forced upon us in this country. As I write this, the walls of my house shake and rattle from the thunderous boom of ceaseless explosions. By tomorrow, South Central LA (and San Francisco, and Oakland, and anywhere else I might try to escape to) will sound and smell like an ash-filled war zone–all in the name of freedom and American patriotism like most war zones usually are. Animals and sensitive people (like myself, returning soldiers, children and the elderly) will flinch and cringe at every blast, never quite ready for the next one. Dizzying displays of stars and stripes abound, and the proud flutter of confederate flags reminds us that the collective consciousness of this country is still filled with gaping holes. Americans (along the spectrum of privilege from the very wealthy to the miserably oppressed) will take to backyards, front stoops and neighborhood parks to burn the flesh of exploited animals, adding the charred smoke of blazing barbecues to the smoldering firecracker air. And never mind the ozone layer, because it’s unpatriotic to criticize dynamite-caliber explosives in the name of air quality, health and safety. Americans who are fortunate enough to have jobs in this moment will gather today to savor a rare day off work, to celebrate a lopsided historical narrative of freedom, and to pretend for the day that we all enjoy the fruits of imperialism, of colonialism, of capitalism. But in truth, we do not and we never have under the current system of government. The proposed freedoms and inalienable rights never came true for the majority of us and our ancestors in this nation. Even those among us whose economic and social capital has afforded them the kind of amenities and leisure time which characterize privilege are suffering too, in less visible ways: in long-term ecological ways that affect all living beings, and in karmic ways at the level of the soul.
I had the privilege of attending Grace Lee Boggs’ 97th birthday party in Detroit earlier this week, and she eloquently reminded us that the very document we revere on this day, the Declaration of Independence itself stipulates, “…whenever any form of Government becomes destructive (of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness), …it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness”. In other words, it is our right as Americans to question, critique, dismantle and recreate any system of governance that no longer serves us. It is our right to abolish the current system that is more invested in surveilling, incarcerating and killing us than educating, feeding or sustaining us. It is our right as Americans to dream new ways of being in the world, and resurrect ancient practices that allow and encourage our survival and happiness. We have borne witness to numerous “Frankenstein systems” that were supposed to serve us but grew out of control. It is time (long overdue) that we reclaim and dictate the terms of our own systems.
As we embark on yet another 4th of July and recognize (as we should) the amount of privilege that we have in this country, may this Independence Day also be about collectivity, freedom dreaming, building the world anew, and not believing all the hype. There is more to being an American than flag waving, charbroiling and blowing things up. Let’s explore what else we have to offer to the world.