Dependence and independence
17th June 2013 · 0 Comments
By Edmund W. Lewis
In just over two weeks, Americans will celebrate the nation’s 237th birthday. For many, the July 4th observance took on added significance in the years since 2001’s terrorist attacks in NYC and the so-called war on terrorism. But for some, the Fourth of July is a glaring example of the disparity between the realities of living in America and what this nation professes to be.
For Africans in America, Fourth of July celebrations have always been tempered with sobering reflection and debate which is understandable given the nation’s historical and ongoing treatment and mistreatment of people of color. While Africans in America begrudgingly honor the United States as the land where so many of our ancestors fought, bled and died for freedom, we know that it is also the land that has exacted a steep price from people of color for the “privilege” of remaining in this nation. After all, the independence so enthusiastically celebrated annually on July 4 has come at the expense of Black, red, brown and yellow peoples, both here and abroad.
In that spirit, I have to ask: Do you know where your shackles are?
While Black people have demonstrated an unwavering loyalty to and love for this nation, it is a love that has been for the most part unrequited. We have gone to war after war after war to prove our love and loyalty to this nation, only to return to bigotry, scorn, discrimination and racial violence at the hands of our white countrymen.
No matter how you slice it, the reality is that the Fourth of July isn’t half as significant for Africans in America as it is for the Europeans who call America home.
That doesn’t mean we’re any less patriotic than our blue-eyed, fair-skinned cousins. Just that our experience in this land has been dramatically different than that of white Americans. There is a Reality Divide that separates the races and illustrates just how different our experiences have been from that of the mainstream. America, to many whites, is baseball, hotdogs, apple pie, fireworks, and patriotic songs that stir emotion. For people of African descent, America is the land that held us captive for centuries, methodically broke up our families, raped our women, destroyed our cultural roots and violently ripped us out of our history. It is the nation that dragged us kicking and screaming across the Atlantic Ocean.
We didn’t ask to be brought here. We weren’t running from religious persecution, famine, pestilence or some other plague, terror or form of oppression.
Over the course of this nation’s history, we have repeatedly heard that the majority rules. Since for the greater part of this nation’s relatively short history the majority has been European, that hasn’t been much of a cause for concern for the larger society. But as we roll on in the 21st century and see the populations of brown, black, red and yellow peoples increase while the number of white Americans subsides, it will be interesting to see how this unchallenged rule plays out.
In the years since George W. Bush won a questionable presidential race and President Barack Obama was elected to the highest office in the land, we have already begun to see the illusion of “fair elections” starting to unravel.
Occasions like Thanksgiving Day and Independence Day invariably prompt me to think at length about this nation’s muddled history and how the story of how this nation came to be has not yet been fully told. Especially in the nation’s schools — private and public — where all too often we get a decidedly Eurocentric view of world and United States history. While we hear about European explorers like Marco Polo, Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus, we aren’t presented with much information about the death and destruction that followed them.
As many have pointed out, the golden rule in the Western Hemisphere has long been that he who owns the gold makes all the rules. Napoleon once said that “history is a fable agreed upon.” Agreed upon by the rich and powerful. While some episodes may be irretrievably lost to us, you can be fairly certain that the men writing the history of this nation for prosperity lost very little sleep over the fact that women and people of color were intentionally written out of American history. It was as if we never existed or never contributed anything of merit or enduring significance to this society.
We, of course, know better.
Still, judging from the attitudes of some members of the larger society and this nation’s continued oppression and subjugation of people of color and women, there is still not a high premium placed on humans who are blessed with melanin and/or ovaries.
For some whites, the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution are reason enough to get misty-eyed and choked up about the history and greatness of this nation. But for us, it represents a stark illustration of the divide between the haves, have-littles and the have-nots. America was created to be a white, Christian republic for Europeans. Point blank.
Somewhere along the way things got complicated and twisted.
While a significant portion of Black America does not deny the greatness and power of this nation, many people of color do object to so little credit being given to Native Americans, Africans, Asians and others for the building of the United States. Some of the things that made this country great were taken from us (i.e., labor, freedom, citizenship, life, pursuit of happiness) while we voluntarily agreed to defend this nation and its people in every war since the French and Indian War.
When mainstream historians talk about how the West was won, seldom do they give the legendary Buffalo Soldiers the credit these courageous and selfless warriors so richly deserve. Nor do we hear enough about the scorn, discrimination and ridicule Black soldiers endured for daring to serve in the United States Armed Forces in the 20th century.
After everything that was and is done to people of color in the name of Manifest Destiny, patriotism and white supremacy, white Americans behave as though they can’t understand for the life of them why we don’t share their myopic and mindless love and devotion for Old Glory. Plainly put, we do not have that luxury.
Some of us have made the mistake of thinking that if we get enough money, education and professional success everything will be alright. But these goals, however laudable, cannot completely shield us from the scourge of bigotry, racial enmity and oppression. Every now and then, racism rears its ugly head and reminds us of our “place” in the world.
Besides, we are not discriminated against, racially profiled and despised because we come from the wrong side of the tracks, are undereducated or have thick lips, nappy hair, rhythm and a sense of style second to none. No, we’re a threat to the United States and its reputation in the global community because of who we are, what we know and the fact that we are a constant reminder of America’s past transgressions.
More than two centuries after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, this nation is still not prepared to own up to past mistakes and missteps.
Anyone who doubts this need look no further than the controversy surrounding the descendants of Thomas Jefferson, one of the primary architects of the United States Constitution and the American Dream. Some 200 years after his passing, his African descendants are still fighting for respect and inclusion.
The real reason America refuses to apologize for slavery is because issuing an apology implies guilt and this nation has never voluntarily relinquished any of its power or authority. We would be wise to remember Frederick Douglass’ observation that “power concedes nothing without a demand; it never did and it never will.”
Two dates loom magnanimously in the hearts of many Blacks in the U.S. December 31, which Blacks often refer to as Freedom’s Eve because of its historical connection to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and June 19, or Juneteenth, the date when federal troops informed enslaved Africans in Texas of the abolition of slavery in the United States.
One thing we should always remember is that we live in the United States of America and have the right to honor our African ancestors in any shape, form or fashion we deem appropriate. We don’t need the federal government or any institution or entity to give us permission to remember and pay homage to those who came before us who dedicated their lives to freeing African minds, bodies and spirits from oppression and tyranny. We need to start thinking and acting like a free people.
Even if we had never been granted a MLK holiday by the federal government, we still needed to find a way to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. and all the others who fought, bled and died for our freedom. We still need to remember Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X, Martin R. Delany, W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Carter G.Woodson, Ida B.Wells-Barnett, Mary McCleod Bethune, Mary Church Terrell, Nat Turner, Asa Philip Randolph, John Henrik Clarke, George Washington Carver, Elijah Muhammad, Huey P. Newton, Kwame Ture (Stokley Carmichael) and all the freedom fighters to whom we owe such a colossal debt.
We can never repay them but we can and must remember them.
We need to remember the March on Washington, Million Man March, Harper’s Ferry, the 1811 Louisiana Slave Revolt and all the other important dates that mark the history of Africans struggling in America for the right to be.
We need not be bashful or apologetic about telling our own story, in our own words and from our own unique perspective.
On July 5, 1852, a decade before the Civil War, abolitionist Frederick Douglass delivered an address titled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” in which he pointed out the “hollow mockery” of Europeans celebrating their freedom in America while continuing to deny Africans of their inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. An excerpt follows:
“You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three million of your countrymen… You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot and kill. You glory in your refinement and your universal education; yet you maintain a system as barbarous and dreadful as ever stained the character of a nation—a system begun in avarice, supported in pride, and perpetuated in cruelty…You are all on fire at the mention of liberty for France or for Ireland; but are as cold as an iceberg at the thought of liberty for the enslaved of America. You discourse eloquently on the dignity of labor; yet you sustain a system which, in its very essence, casts a stigma upon labor…You profess to believe ‘that, of one blood, God made all nations of men to dwell on the face of all the earth,’ and hath commanded all men, everywhere to love one another; yet you notoriously hate, (and glory in your hatred), all men whose skins are not colored like your own. You declare, before the world, and are understood by the world to declare that you ‘hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; and that, among these are, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness;’ and yet, you hold securely, in a bondage which, according to your own Thomas Jefferson, ‘is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,’ a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.
“…The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a byword to a mocking earth…It fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement, the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that supports it; and yet, you cling to it, as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes. Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of twenty million crush and destroy it forever!”
Make no mistake about it, this is a great country. But from the very beginning a conscious effort was made to conceal the pivotal role Blacks played in making American inhabitable and a global force to be reckoned with. America could be so much better if it could ever find a way to put aside the hatred, treachery, parsimony, duplicity and inequities of the past, if this nation could somehow find a way to get past skin color. America could be so much better if it could move beyond racial tolerance (who wants to be merely tolerated?) and into a realm of interracial understanding, intercultural exchange and cooperation. This nation could be so much better if all of its inhabitants could only commit to walking the path of righteousness together as equal members of the human family.
America has more than its fair share of problems and challenges. But it is still one of the most powerful nations in the history of the world. Perhaps its greatest challenge in the new millennium is to learn to use its incredible wealth, power and influence in the global community to protect and uplift humanity rather than to control and exploit members of the global village. The good news is that America is still a relative youngster at 237 years of age and can change for the better if there is a concerted effort on the part of its people.
There are those in America who repeatedly try to convince us that it is unpatriotic — if not blasphemous — for Africans in America to criticize the United States for its laundry list of injustices and inequities. I disagree. It is precisely because Black people love this nation and see its tremendous potential that we feel compelled to challenge this nation to become all that it professes to be.
In my mind’s eye, that’s not only our God-given and Constitutional right; that’s our duty as citizens of one of the greatest nations on the face of the earth. Contrary to what is being taught in U.S. classrooms, we have played and continue to play a pivotal role in creating and maintaining America’s greatness.
We will continue to fight the fight our ancestors have fought for the right to be recognized as free human beings in this society until it is time for us to cross over to the Village of the Ancestors. Giving up is not an option.
This article originally published in the June 17, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.