Before the long weekend is over, I want to be sure to call attention to Professor Ibram X. Kendi’s superb essay, “What to an American is the 4th of July?” published on July 4 in The Atlantic. Kendi is, of course, jumping off from Frederick Douglass‘s famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Let’s start by quoting Douglass:
We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future. To all inspiring motives, to noble deeds which can be gained from the past, we are welcome. But now is the time, the important time. Your fathers have lived, died, and have done their work, and have done much of it well. You live and must die, and you must do your work. You have no right to enjoy a child’s share in the labor of your fathers, unless your children are to be blest by your labors. You have no right to wear out and waste the hard-earned fame of your fathers to cover your indolence…. Need I tell you that the Jews are not the only people who built the tombs of the prophets, and garnished the sepulchres of the righteous? Washington could not die till he had broken the chains of his slaves. Yet his monument is built up by the price of human blood, and the traders in the bodies and souls of men, shout—“We have Washington to our father.” Alas! that it should be so; yet so it is.
Read the whole speech, linked above. Douglass must have been a remarkable orator.
Kendi, one of the great anti-racist scholars of our time, tackles the same issue from the perspective of 150+ years later, with the thoughtfulness, care, and grounded rage which are his hallmarks:
He starts with John Adams:
Who did John Adams include in “our Struggle”? Just the wealthy white men assembled with him in Philadelphia? Who was “our Struggle” truly for? Who really declared independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776? Who was really in the process of becoming free?
In 1776, Adams was already being reminded by his wife Abigail that his struggles for freedom were ignoring “the Ladies,” who “will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no … Representation.”
Kendi continues …
As we know all too well today, wealthy white American men did not stop rebelling when they won the American Revolution, when they gained the power to protect their declared independence. They continued to rebel to keep their power. They, “the Patriots.” The rest of us have continued our rebellions because we have yet to gain the power to be free. The resisting rest of us, “the unpatriotic.”
On this Fourth of July, the rest of us—and our wealthy white male allies—should be celebrating our ongoing struggles for freedom and not celebrating as if we are free. We should be celebrating our disobedience, turbulence, insolence, and discontent about inequities and injustices in all forms. We should be celebrating our form of patriotism that they call unpatriotic, our historic struggle to extend power and freedom to every single American. This is our American project.
Because power comes before freedom, not the other way around. Power creates freedom, not the other way around.
After a clear-eyed analysis of that bolded point (emphasis mine), Kendi underlines his central point:
Pundits talk of American disunity as if the divide is brothers and sisters fighting. This is a power divide. Let’s not ask why the master and the slave are divided. Let’s not ask why the tyrant and the egalitarian are divided. Let’s not ask why the sexist and the feminist are divided. Let’s not ask why the racist and the anti-racist are divided. The reasons should be self-evident. There’s no healing these divides or bringing these powers together.
America is the story of powerful people struggling to keep their disproportionate amount of power from people who are struggling for the power to be free.
I might wish here that Kendi had acknowledged that some of the divide is brothers and sisters fighting, that far too many of the powerless have aligned themselves with the master, the tyrant, the sexist, and the racist, for reasons that are endlessly discussed elsewhere. The divide that I hope can be healed is not any of the ones he names, but the one between people whose true interests I believe lie (or should lie) with the slave, the egalitarian, the feminist, and the anti-racist, but who would profoundly disagree with this analysis. However, Kendi can’t be faulted for not making my points.
He goes on to clarify for himself a commonly confused question of identity:
As a resistant black man in America, I’ve never felt like a slave. But I’ve never felt free. And I understand why. I have the power to resist policy, a resistance that ensures I’m not a slave. But I don’t have the power to shape policy, a power that makes me free.
Read this whole essay after you read the whole Douglass speech.
Two more tidbits: 1) the mug shot at the top of this post is U.S. Congressman John Lewis from the days when he was an active freedom fighter in the U.S. Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. His autobiography, Walking with the Wind, is one of the most important books I’ve read in the past few years. (Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America is another.)
2) This was my favorite 4th of July tweet, from the trenchant (and often funny) Wajahat Ali:
Walked into the room to see my baby girl in a stars & stripes skirt dancing w/ her brother to “Bhole Chudiyan.” A Syrian American friend in hijab is singing the Hindi lyrics & another friend came over after watching fireworks. I’m making chai in the kitchen. This too is America.
— Wajahat Ali (@WajahatAli) July 5, 2019
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