On the stairs I smoke a cigarette alone/ The Mexican kids are shooting fireworks below/ Hey, baby, it’s the Fourth of July/ Hey, baby, it’s the Fourth of July.
— Dave Alvin, “Fourth of July”
Treated as a given rather than a conscious choice, patriotism is easy to espouse: With the exception of members of the transnational super-rich class flitting from Sochi to Dubai and Manhattan, most of us spend all or the vast majority of our lives in one country. We love and invest our concern in the people with whom we share a country, a state, a city, a community. We’re patriots.
It’s only when demagogues create a mystique out of patriotism and define it through exclusionary claims that cleave true believers from arbitrarily defined others that it becomes harmful and dangerous.
For people of color, the rights guaranteed under the Constitution — to speak freely, assemble and petition for redress of grievances, to bear arms, to be secure in one’s person and home — have always been conditional, and largely elusive. Still, with apologies to Frederick Douglass, I am celebrating the Fourth of July precisely to raise the implications of what liberty means to all those Americans who have encountered systematic disenfranchisement. For those who are tired of hearing about the grievances of the disenfranchised, the only other choice is revolution, and that, too, is a core American value.
What is the right to bear arms if Philando Castille cannot carry a firearm without it being considered a pretext and a provocation to murder by a police officer who subjectively feels that a black man is a threat?
What is the pursuit of happiness if Eddie Wise, a black son of sharecroppers and Army veteran — whose story is masterfully told in the latest episode of “Reveal,” the radio show and podcast co-produced by the Center for Investigative Journalism and PRX — is robbed of his farm near Rocky Mount because of discriminatory loan practices by the federal government?
And what is the honor of military service if undocumented veterans are denied the opportunity to become citizens and are even subjected to deportation?
I want to take the nationalist right at its word, and hold them to their avowed creed.
While we celebrate the ideals of the Constitution, let’s not fetishize the founders. Beyond the hypocrisy of slaveholders declaring that all men are created equal, it’s instructive to remember that free speech wasn’t protected in the early days of the republic when it challenged white supremacy. As Juan González and Joseph Torres recount in their 2011 book News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media, a group of prominent whites broke into the post office in Charleston, SC in 1835, and seized copies of abolitionist pamphlets and newspapers and burned them on the grounds of the Citadel before a cheering mob of 2,000 people.
Sadly, the press — the only profession explicitly protected in the Constitution — has not always upheld its duty to report the truth and defend the rights of all Americans to be secure in their homes and earn a living. Since the early 19th Century, the white press has fomented violence against blacks, Indians, Mexicans and Chinese, most infamously with Josephus Daniels’ use of the Raleigh News & Observer to incite violence against the multiracial city government in Wilmington. Notably, the first act in the 1898 coup was a white mob’s arson of the city’s only black newspaper, the Record.
As González and Torres show in News for All the People, journalism committed by people of color has always played a critical role in defending the rights of non-white Americans when the white press manufactured false outrages or otherwise distorted the facts. In one telling passage, the authors recount how white militia members destroyed the first Cherokee newspaper even after the tribe had largely acceded to the Jackson administration’s demand for removal.
González and Torres write that Cherokee Chief John Ross decided to move the Phoenix newspaper to Cherokee land in present-day Tennessee. “Tragically, the Georgia Guard intercepted the wagon train that was carrying the newspaper’s equipment, seized the press at gunpoint, and dumped its lead type into a well,” the authors write, “and so ended the extraordinary saga of the world’s first Indian newspaper.”
With immigrant families being torn apart, mosques withstanding an unending stream of threats and attacks, and the number of fatal attacks on transgender people at an all-time high, these stories don’t seem all that far removed from contemporary American life.
If we’re going to celebrate freedom, then let’s be free — black, white, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern and American Indian, immigrant and native-born, queer and straight, Muslim, Jewish, Christian and nonbeliever. The rights enumerated in the Constitution can never be taken for granted, and require us to fight every inch of the way: telling unpopular truths, getting land, earning a livelihood, defending families and communities by force of arms, if necessary. This Fourth of July, I’m going with the expansive vision of America, not the narrow one.
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