Independence Day Is Whiter Than a White Christmas
One of my most vivid childhood church memories happened on a once-a-decade-or-so Sunday that doubled as Independence Day. It was religious business as usual at Calvary Assembly of God in Kissimmee, Florida, until the stoic woman who played piano during song service approached the pulpit.
She began to sing a song I’d never heard before and was sure she’d made up on the spot called “I’m Proud to Be an American.” I can’t recall for certain, but I’m pretty sure she was wearing a blouse with an American flag pattern. It was the strangest display of patriotism I’d ever seen.
My first thought: I never knew she could sing.
My second: What the hell is she singing?…
Pardon my French God, but this is church. Isn’t she supposed to be singing about You?
Third thought: What does America have to do with anything here? And what about the members of the congregation who are not American? Should they sit this singalong out?
I was young, so I didn’t think to cry out Separation of Church and State! on the inside. But it was still a moment as unintentionally comical and ridiculous and inappropriate as the American flag blouse that I’m now convinced she was wearing.
I looked around at all of the white faces around me (minus those of the Lees, a family from the Philippines, and my own family, the church’s only black members) and realized she was preaching to the choir. The room couldn’t have been more American. But wouldn’t “America the Beautiful,” with its “God shed His grace on thee” refrain, or Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.,” which was probably a hit around the time, have been more on-topic?
I still wouldn’t have sung along. It had nothing to do with separation of Church and State, or the idea that religion serves as the number-one ammunition for homophobes, like my Aunt Juliet. I was too young to be concerned with that yet.
The truth is, the Charlie Daniels Band’s “In America” and Neil Diamond’s “America” aside, I’ve never been into patriotic songs. I don’t care for “America the Beautiful,” “God Bless the U.S.A.,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” or “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” No U.S. anthem she could have sung would have impressed me as much as a kick-ass original take on “Amazing Grace”… which by the way, I’m still waiting for.
Furthermore, Independence Day just wasn’t my thing. Aside from getting the day off from school/work, I’ve never been into it. I don’t even like fireworks.
Now that I’m on my 12th Fourth of July living outside of the U.S., Independence Day matters even less because there’s no reprieve from anything for me. It’s just like any other day here in Bulgaria, where I’ll be spending it this year.
But deep inside my heart, it’s actually a little worse than any other holiday, not for what it represents but for what it doesn’t. For my fellow black Americans and me, Independence Day means absolutely nothing. On July 4, 1776, the day the Declaration of Independence was ratified and Thomas Jefferson’s words “All men are created equal” became immortal, our ancestors were shackled and enslaved, forced against their will to serve their white masters.
I love my country as much as the church lady wearing an American flag, but is that cause for celebration?
The Founding Hypocrites
I’ve spent the past few years devouring historical documentaries, including dozens that focus on the Revolutionary War and the Founding Fathers. One of the most alarming discoveries I’ve made is how many of them owned black slaves. Yes, even the “Father of His Country” himself, George Washington, first American President, was “Master” to many.
Jefferson, our third U.S. President, wrote an entire treatise on why blacks are inferior to whites in Notes on the State of Virginia. Was this his way of convincing himself that it was OK to hang them several rungs below Presidential pets, treat them as less than human (unless he was taking one, Sally Hemings, to bed)?
Despite his black-and-white views on blacks and whites and the fact that he owned hundreds of slaves, Jefferson opposed the institution — in theory. Unfortunately for black Americans, the Declaration of Independence author’s personal convictions didn’t make Independence Day their independence day. Only a handful of Founding Fathers — including Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay (the latter two of whom owned slaves at some point in their lives) — ever publicly supported abolition.
Of the first 12 U.S. Presidents only two, John Adams (number two) and his son John Quincy Adams (number six), never owned slaves. Millard Fillmore (number 13), Franklin Pierce (number 14), and James Buchanan (number 15) weren’t slave owners either, but their actions (and in Buchanan’s case, inaction) while in office furthered the Southern cause and hastened the arrival of the Civil War.
It wasn’t until 16 years shy of the Declaration of Independence’s centennial that U.S. voters (all male, all white) elected a leader who truly would be committed to “All men are created equal.” Although Abraham Lincoln, our 16th President, like Franklin, didn’t become an abolitionist until well into adulthood (toward the end of the Civil War and, sadly, his life), he was a longtime critic of slavery. In a 1955 letter to his fellow Kentuckian politician George Robertson, Lincoln wrote:
On the question of liberty, as a principle, we are not what we have been. When we were the political slaves of King George, and wanted to be free, we called the maxim that “all men are created equal” a self evident truth; but now when we have grown fat, and have lost all dread of being slaves ourselves, we have become so greedy to be masters that we call the same maxim “a self evident lie.” The fourth of July has not quite dwindled away; it is still a great day — for burning fire-crackers!!!
So while that I am proud to be an American, I won’t be celebrating Independence Day this year (or any year). July 4 will be just another day for me, except I’ll be packing for my first trip to Greece in 18 years.
There’ll be no fireworks or TV coverage in Sofia, Bulgaria, thank God. Considering my current heightened state of awareness, I’m not sure I could stomach watching everyone celebrate our Founding Hypocrites who preached freedom and equality from England while denying that very thing to the people who would go on to contribute so much to American culture.
I have nothing against white Americans celebrating Independence Day, but it’s their Independence Day, not mine. Wake me when the third Monday in January rolls around again. I’d like to raise a glass to Martin Luther King Jr. Unlike most of the United States’ Founding Fathers, when he spoke about justice and equality for all, he actually meant it.