It’s patriot szn!
Wednesday is National Cookout Day or as some American’s like to call it, the 4th of July or Independence Day. All across this land, folks will be gazing at fireworks, spending time with family and friends, and saluting the flag, marveling at the awe and promise of the small colony that dared.
I will be getting drunk on tequila and eating fried chicken.
By the time this is published, my friends and I will be somewhere on what once was Lenape territory, staking our claim amongst the throngs of “patriotic” Americans to go see some pretty lights in the sky. In the midst of the latest heat wave to ravage the city, our being outside at all would suggest some form of sentimentality for Mama America, but don’t be fooled;. I’m a sucker for pretty lights in the sky. Still, it would be a lie to say that, in the past weeks, I haven’t thought heavily about what it means to be born as and remain a citizen of this country, particularly as it falls into fault after fault after fault. This week, like many others before it, has brought with it a whirlwind of pummeling news and political shifts that will have deep implications for future generations. As the sun rises on yet another American birthday, almost intuitively we as Americans find ourselves at a rebirthing stage, edging on the cusp, teetering close to destruction or triumph, and once again having to ask of ourselves who we will be and what that will come to mean for the world and time immemorial.
America is definitely a Cancer. 🦀
It’s 12:16 am and the neighborhood is setting off fireworks. I was told by the woman I met that the unsponsored ones in Harlem and the Bronx, the ones without the trappings of corporate marketing, capitalism, and American mythos, are more fun. I can imagine so. Growing up in the South, the 4th of July never meant anything more than my uncle’s front yard, a charcoal grill, and a truckload of items brought up at the SC/NC border for the occasion. Though my family is filled with veterans from every major war in recent American history and members of every branch of the American military, none of them made a show of it the day of. The fireworks were about the children, the food about the family. Our Americanness was never discussed as frontline but rather almost like a quirk or twist in what was more generally our family’s narrative. The men fought not because they cared about Uncle Sam or Lady Liberty but because the pay was good and it allowed them to send checks home to my grandmother and great-aunts in a time where work for Black men was paid in pittance. Serving allowed them to travel, sometimes abroad, and bring back gifts for the family and foreign currencies to tuck away. They made friends, often for a lifetime. Upon the soil, Catawba land, that our ancestors tilled long before citizenship and, perhaps, even before there was an America, there was simply us. To be an American was not a question we often asked; instead we asked what it meant to be Southern, what it meant to be Black, what it meant to be us in spite of them.
When the fireworks went up no one ever broke out into America the Beautiful or the national anthem. If anything, we played Frankie Beverly and Mase…
Some years later on the island of Manhattan, I’d be introduced to Frederick Douglas’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Coupled along with the sonic lamentation of America that only Black music can do, I pored over the text as a means to understand my predicament as no one in nowhere. I was not a slave, but much like Douglas’ keen observation of slaves who quested for freedom after “freedom” had been won, I, too observed the gross injustice and cruelty that propped up the guise of the American Dream. As Harlem, Black Studies, the growing prison abolition movement, and the Movement for Black Lives began to swirl and merge with my collegiate education, my Americanness evolved from a muted quirk into an aspect that caused me great pain and displeasure. Being American felt like being complicit in a broken system that had no investment in repairing. Being American felt like violence and felt like a farce. Even as I marched, protested, wrote, or studied, my insistence was on recognition as a Black person rather than an American; the debt that was owed was not because of the flag but in spite of it.
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 hymns, 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 bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
Still, the 4th always came. In the hot summers, sometimes in Manhattan, sometimes in North Carolina, I would always settle into the same routines with my family of fixing and preening. Though Juneteenth had been introduced into my life as a true Independence Day, it still didn’t offer the thing that Uncle Sam can be good for whenever he needs a lure: time off. So without much fanfare, it always ended the same: fireworks, food, and perhaps a silent rumination. What to me is the Fourth of July?
I have no faith in 2020. I believe the Democrats are too split to fight, and even if they weren’t they don’t care enough to do what’s right. I believe the Republicans are spineless, fully committed to this barrage of human rights violations, and are supported deeply by capitalism and imperialism. I believe that whiteness as a structure demands death to feed. And I believe that the American empire is crumbling into the sea, with the waves to be felt for generations to come.
At least once a week, I think about shoring up a language, galvanizing my resources. I was born an American like my mother and her mother and her mother. We were made into Americans by laws written long after the fact and brought to the Americas by crimes made well before Douglas’ powerful oration. We remained, making a life of beauty and pain in spite of America and all that they have told us that it must mean. Still, the bodies, proverbial and not, continue to pile up across the country and across the globe. Still, the violence America has wrought and continues to wreak paints us globally as a villain, and rightfully so. Still, Black people (and truly all marginalized/”minoritized” folk) are told that their Americanness is a gift given and an honor bestowed. Still, the guilt like the heat weighs on.
People cross oceans, deserts, and dangerous territory to arrive here (often due to the destabilization we’ve wrought); so much so, Black Americans are seen as a privileged group, having their Americanness be a foundational rock upon which to build their liberation. But it is still deeply unsettling that the only seemingly valid choice of Black Americans is to simply remain and continuously give, or else we forsake this privilege and our ancestor’s labor. And even if we choose to remain conscientious dissenters, who’s to say that American doesn’t simply thrive off of our indifference just as much as she feeds on our hope? To untangle the Black from the American is a metaphysical dilemma unconquered and yet it is urgent with each passing policy, each passing strike, each passing minute. I have no answers. I have no America.
Tonight’s fireworks show concluded at 1:47 as the police and fire department responded. Tomorrow, there will be more. Probably into the rest of the week (month!!) there will be more. The “celebration” is more solemn than the one that enraptures the imagination on the East River, bankrolled by corporations and as flashy as it is loud. Here, there are no Uncle Sam hats, no Lady Liberty headbands. There are no red, white, and blue buntings or apple pies. There is no “God Bless the USA” or “E Pluribus Unum.” There is only us. Drinks. Food. Fireworks. Tomorrow is just a day off from work. Tomorrow is just another day of work. Tomorrow is just a day and America remains a bad bitch. Happy Birthday or whatever…