I like the Fourth of July. Almost everyone does. Friends and neighbors gathered in parks and back yards throughout the nation, sharing food and drink and happy thoughts in a festive atmosphere. What’s not to like?
Well the patriotic claptrap, of course. That I could do without.
I’m not talking about patriotism. Acts of citizenship and service honor this country’s traditions. I’m talking about the empty speechifying, often by politicians wearing faces gleaming with corruption, which passes for patriotism these days.
And the flag-waving. I’m not big on flag-waving.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the flag, of course. It’s a beautiful symbol of the things we value. But too often it is waved in order to substitute emotionalism for rational behavior.
War, for example. How many times have nations been led into truly stupid wars behind a flowing flag? Does the word Iraq suggest anything to you?
But I digress. I was talking about the Fourth of July. My favorite Fourth of July speech is the one the great 19th-century orator and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass delivered to a Rochester, New York audience in 1852. The former slave said:
“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth 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 hymn, 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 more bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.”
That was Douglass’ most significant contribution to our “patriotic” holiday — the truth.
We eliminated slavery, of course, and it was a heavy lift that left some 625,000 dead and hundreds of thousands more wounded. We have a right to pat ourselves on the back about that. I don’t recall any other nation fighting a civil war on behalf of an enslaved people.
But we shouldn’t pat ourselves too hard. A few weeks ago we commemorated (or rather, failed to commemorate) the 90th anniversary of the Tulsa race riot, a shameful chapter in our history that we conveniently forgot about for nearly a century.
On May 31, 1921, a black man in Tulsa was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting a white woman (a charge never validated, by the way).
He was taken to jail where a lynch mob made up of white men began to gather. Soon a group of armed black men showed up to protect the suspect.
Predictably, a gun battle broke out and the black men retreated to the “colored” side of town. The Tulsa police chief deputized hundreds of white men who gave chase.
In the hours that followed, the African-American section of town was burned to the ground. As many as 300 people, most of them black, were killed. Thousands were left homeless.
Did you ever read about that in your history books? I didn’t think so. You didn’t hear it in any Fourth of July speech either. Frederick Douglass had passed away decades earlier.
So I say to you, enjoy your Fourth of July picnic and feel joy that we live in this wonderful country, albeit one with a tragic past.
But don’t forget to keep it real.
We’ve come a long way but we’ve got a long way to go. Have a happy Fourth.
OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. www.otherwords.org