This year, Trump took credit for making Juneteenth a well-known thing. Maybe he did, in a very weird, roundabout way, at least among his own base. He has a tendency to talk about new things he learns as if it’s the first time anybody has ever heard of them and he gets to Trump-splain them to us. This is the same guy who, along with his followers, considered it unpatriotic for Colin Kapernick to take a knee rather than pledge allegiance to the US flag. In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, the NFL has even reversed course on its racist stance that players should not “take a knee.” There’s a certain brand of patriotism in the US that relies on a racist foundation to legitimize it.
When I was a missionary in the Canary Islands, I was assigned to the small, beautiful island of La Palma. It is still one of my favorite places on the planet. Unlike most of the other islands whose economies relied on tourism, La Palma was (at the time) very insular, very resistant to outsiders, and very Catholic. We frequently taught new investigators who had recently moved there, only to be told at our second appointment that their neighbors had told them that joining a different religion would lead to them being ostracized. Even the nuns scowled at us when we walked past them! The local branch of 32 members had (all but a handful of them) reneged and returned to Catholicism. Once, when we were walking through a new neighborhood, young kids threw oranges at us shouting that we should be Catholic. One of them pointed at the Catholic Church and yelled, “Tu iglesia!” at me (literally meaning “Your Church,” but also using the familiar form which was bad manners as I was an adult, not that throwing fruit at us was “good” manners). It was an interesting three months.
I sometimes think about that young boy’s face, twisted in fury, pointing at his neighborhood Church, shouting at me that the Catholic Church was my Church. I had nothing against the Catholic Church. It was a good influence in the lives of many. I respected it, I saw its value, but it wasn’t my Church. Its stories weren’t my stories. As missionaries, my companion and I would sometimes go to the local Catholic Church and listen to the homily. The words were uplifting, even if they were so imperfectly applied in the local community, as with any spiritual teaching. Its high church narrative was foreign, ancient and strange to me; its churches, while beautiful, were dark rooms filled with dust and incense. But it wasn’t our Church. Our own branch held meetings in our apartment. We four missionaries usually hosted Church for just one or two stalwart members. It felt pretty brazen to invite people to attend Church when there was really no community of members, and we knew there would be unremitting hostility toward them for joining us. That was our Church.
Since the Black Lives Matter protests, I keep thinking of the brand of patriotism so many Americans have. They are like the angry boy shouting at us, pointing at his Church and yelling, “Tu iglesia!” at me. A patriotism that asserts its dominance on others feels both insecure and threatening if you begin to question the narrative it’s founded on.
What is Independence Day to a black person? It’s not the day black people became independent. What is the American dream to someone descended from enslaved people, someone who couldn’t buy a house in a red-lined suburb, someone unfairly jailed or whose wrongful felony conviction has robbed him of the right to vote (or whose spouse and children were left to fend for themselves), someone stuck in poverty or without healthcare (or told by healthcare workers that they didn’t really feel pain), or someone who grew up seeing that the American dream only really worked for white people? These words still resonate for many black Americans:
Abolitionist movement leader Frederick Douglass gave a scathing speech the day after Independence Day in 1852, saying: “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn…. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?”
Douglass reminded listeners that when the Declaration of Independence was signed, many blacks were still slaves. Even the British were more likely to offer freedom to blacks than the colonists.
What’s troubling about Juneteenth is the indifference of white people that it reveals. It’s a commemoration of the day that enslaved black people in Texas were finally told they were now freed–TWO AND A HALF YEARS after the emancipation proclamation. Texas doesn’t like to admit defeat, and from my experience living in rural Texas in the 70s, they still think the Civil War is on. I found it troubling that the two black students in my class always sat in the back and didn’t talk to any of the other kids. When I asked a classmate about that, she whispered to me that they were “bused in” so they didn’t really belong there anyway. We were in 3rd grade. Little ears hear what big mouths tell them at home.
Another troubling thing about the emancipation is that it freed formerly enslaved people in word, but not necessarily in deed. Many former white slave-owners couldn’t bear to be equal to their former slaves. They did everything possible to maintain supremacy over these newly-made citizens, forcing them to live in segregated poverty, refusing them basic dignity, incarcerating them on trumped up charges, executing them without consequences. When did freedom come? Even in the northern states, these attitudes and outcomes often prevailed, although sometimes with less animus.
There’s been a lot in the news lately about Confederate statues and renaming military bases. Some conservatives have objected to the erasure of “history” if we remove statues. Have we really been telling history or just a narrative in which white people are good, adventurous, and industrious, while glossing over or eliding entirely the black and brown humans we exploited and killed in the process? Are we really preserving a “history” or just a narrative designed to ennoble white people? It’s painful to admit the wrongs of the past that have given us an advantage over others.
I remember attending Church as a BYU student with my roommate who was British. It was near the 4th of July, and one of the “hymns” was “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” As the music began, she sucked in her breath in surprise and horror. “They’ve taken our beloved anthem God Save the Queen and made it about America!” This felt like a sacrilege to her. God Save the Queen was patriotic, part of her heritage. Americans have always been good at rewriting and inventing our history to suit our needs. She wouldn’t sing it.
A recent article in Vox talked about why the American Revolution was a mistake or had worse outcomes than we would have had without it:
- Slavery was abolished in the British empire in 1834, over thirty years earlier than it was in the US. Even Colonial India banned it in 1843, nine years later. Somehow, the US was more colonial than the country that colonized us!
- The British treated indigenous people better than the Americans did. Exhibit A is Canada’s treatment of native Americans that is much less genocidal with more demonstrated historical respect for border treaties.
- Parliamentary democracies, like they have in the UK, are less prone to dictatorships and gridlock than our US system of checks and balances between executive and legislative branches. Parliamentary democracies are more efficient at making policy decisions and getting things done, and their outcomes are more egalitarian.
Watching Hamilton, along with most of the country, now vs. when it first came out, has been an eye-opening experience. It first hit Broadway during the Obama presidency when the country was congratulating itself on being “post-racial,” a happy little white lie we told ourselves. Seeing people of color cast as founding fathers pointed to the universality of the American experiment. It showed how these concepts of freedom and human rights know no race, that all people are ennobled by ennobling ideals. We thought to ourselves “We don’t see color.”
Watching it now, after the Black Lives Matter protests, after the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and so many others, after the race-baiting language our current president employs very openly and regularly and hearing many so-called Christians mimicking that same language, Hamilton felt quite different. I had always been bothered by the Bechdel failure of Hamilton, but suddenly, it was apparent that the musical wasn’t really holding Jefferson accountable for his actions, just winking at the audience about Sally Hemmings in a way that was too quick to interpret. Was it acknowledging that he was a rapist of enslaved women? That he bartered with enslaved women to sell their children? That he bore personal responsibility for perpetuating slavery beyond our nation’s independence by barring black people from those included in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”? I felt that the musical 1776 did more to directly address slavery than Hamilton did, but that’s probably because John Adams (the star of 1776) was an abolitionist and Hamilton was not. Was the musical really holding Hamilton accountable for taking advantage of an abused, impoverished woman, certainly sexually coercing her, but potentially raping her, or was it content to slut-shame her as a seductress with an opportunist husband?
Lastly, the lack of black characters who were enslaved during the foundation of our country was suddenly visible. Unlike in our supposed post-racial view during the Obama administration in which it was so progressive for people of color to play white people, it was clear that there were black people present during these events. They were just invisible. Sally Hemmings only merits one quip, putting her in the role of secretary. When the cast sings “No one else was in the room where it happened,” that overlooks that there were indeed slaves, people of color, in the room where it happened. They just didn’t matter. They were nobody. Invisible. Not a part of “we the people.”
The music is still incredible. The musical is innovative. I’m not cancelling it. I will watch it again, probably multiple times. But I can suddenly see some things I didn’t see just a few years ago.
When July 4th rolled around this year, we were busy doing some improvements in our yard all weekend, so despite being in more-or-less lockdown, I didn’t see much of my kids. Later in the day, my son and I wished each other “Happy White People’s Independence Day,” acknowledging who was made free on July 4th and who was not. We can’t point at black people who object to the flag and say “That’s YOUR symbol” or “this is YOUR country” unless it is. Until then, we are like the ignorant young boy in La Palma shouting at me that the Catholic Church was my church. It never was.
- How do we disentangle patriotism from racism? Should we celebrate Independence Day without acknowledging that it only applied to white, male land-owners?
- Have your views on racism changed since the Obama presidency? In what ways?
- Do you think we’d have been a better nation without the American Revolution?
- Should we celebrate Juneteenth nationally to commemorate black freedom?
- Are there other holidays we should celebrate to remember that not everyone became “free” in 1776? What about Women’s Suffrage?
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