Reborn on the 4th of July

Governor Charles Sumner had called today a “national sabbath,” but Thoreau was desperate to leave behind a people experiencing “lives of quiet desperation.” The urge to split up himself using this national despair propelled him into the wilderness, where he could “front the essentials” of life.

Every 4th of July, I sense a strong impulse to celebrate my own independence, and Personally i think connected to our rich American tradition, having its commitment to “liberty and justice for all.” This is not just rhetoric, or shouldn’t be. Americans must mean what they say. It’s important, none the less, to remember that European settlers in early 17th-century America displaced the native citizenry to create their particular version of civilization, which land grab wasn’t pretty.

By the late eighteenth century, these colonists wished to dispose of their particular overlords, the British. A “tea party” was formed in 1773 — an early example of civil disobedience and symbolic protest not unlike those who recently took to the streets in the Black Lives Matter movement — and Boston harbor was awash in precious cargo.
In fact, the American Revolution had been brewing for a few years — you start with the death of Crispus Attucks, who was part Black and part Native American. He is widely regarded as the first casualty of the rebellion.

Is there an irony here?

I want, on this great national holiday, to understand just what it means to celebrate American independence. And I continue, despite the traumas of the past year — a brutal pandemic, chaotic leadership in the White House, mass unemployment and racial turmoil — to feel proud of belonging to a country “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” as Abe Lincoln declared that famous day in Gettysburg.

I’m 72, and have spent over 10 years abroad previously or yet another, living in Britain or Italy. I love the “old country,” having its traditions and deep stability. Once or twice I considered staying abroad permanently. But something in the American spirit always called to me, this undersong of liberty and equality.

Most Americans I know value these things deeply, and they would risk their lives to perpetuate them. We love our wilderness landscape, too, and we should preserve it. We appreciate those who, braver than we, are willing to spend a night in jail in order to speak truth to power, just like Henry David Thoreau, who left his cabin at Walden and spent a night in the Concord jail for refusing to pay for his poll tax.

He objected to many reasons for having the US government, including its willingness to put up with slavery. “I cannot for an instant recognize…as my government [that] which is the slave’s government also,” he wrote.
The lasting gift of the Fourth of July
In 1849 he published his essay known as “On Civil Disobedience,” which would provide a blueprint to both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

When I look with sadness at those in this country who harbor racist attitudes, I try not to despair. Slavery was a long and terrible stain on this country, destroying the souls of millions of Black people along with their White oppressors. And the racist impulse scarcely ended with the Civil War.

The Jim Crow era continued for many years, as free Black gents and ladies were pushed to the back of the bus, lynched, left to languish in rotten schools, punished because of their skin tone. Black Wall Street was burned in Tulsa in 1921, one of many such incidents. And the oppression of Black women and men continues even today, as observed in the horrendous killing of George Floyd, that has stunned the whole world.

Despite the present misery around us all, I’m a bit more hopeful today than I’ve been in years. I teach at a college, and I’m awe-stricken by the young people I meet in the class room, who have basically lost all patience with racism. They understand that most White folks have barely an inkling by what Black and brown Americans put up with every single day, and how hard it remains to obtain ahead if you are a person of color.

On this 4th of July, I do want to recommit myself to genuine patriotism (not small-minded nationalism, which is simply the urge to take control those unlike ourselves). I admire our love of liberty and equality. I value freedom of speech and our commitment to any or all religious practice. I experience the beauties of our natural landscape and our urge to keep its purity.

Patriotism is a willingness to experience our independent nature, our hatred of oppression in just about any form or manifestation, our willingness to take to the streets whenever we must.

This is just a nation of immigrants and contains been from the outset. My own grandparents stumbled on this country from Italy, driven with a wish to escape the economic and social brutalities that impoverished their lives. And I was raised among families from a vast array of cultures.

This country can fairly be described as a crazy quilt of many colors and ethnicities, and that remains its glory, its real strength — although many Americans refuse to admit it, preferring the safety and myopic seclusion that White privilege and money makes possible for them.

There is a lot to love here, despite the conditions that beset these often disunited States of America. And much to celebrate also to preserve, including the idea of liberty and justice for all people.

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