Why I’m Not That Into the 4th of July

Today I have no “Happy 4th of July/Independence Day” in me. For the past few days I’ve felt I have no lot in this day and I’m not the least bit compelled to sing “I’m proud to be an American,” because I’m not sure that I am. I was raised in a Jamaican family that wasn’t the least bit interested in waving an American flag, so I feel more Caribbean than I do American. Aside from that, as I reflect on this day, I see no merit in it from both a historical and current perspective.

The signing of the Declaration of Independence changed nothing of the Negro’s status–I’m channeling a little Frederick Douglass here. It secured the independence of white men and women by way of allowing them to live and move in an independent nation but black people were still enslaved. It would take nearly a century for black persons to taste freedom and even then that freedom was limited and subpar. The self-evident truth of equality and the unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness didn’t apply to people of color, and, as a friend pointed out, still doesn’t. We may be equal–and that’s arguable–but we lack the equity necessary to secure success for the greater community. We still suffer from disparities in access to employment, education, economic resources and daily struggle for independence in a society that runs on the power of the patriarchy and privilege–white or otherwise. I see nothing to celebrate. As I’ve said on numerous occasion, “If one is not free, none are free.”

I’m not the most militant person but on this day I feel this way because I don’t think there is a reason for me to wave any flag aside from a Jamaican one or Somalian, Eritrean, Ethiopian one–I’ll explain the latter three in another post. This will probably be the way I feel for an indefinite amount of time until I believe AND see equity–not equality–and the true extension of the unalienable right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all people.

Frederick Douglass’s speech “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” captures precisely why I have no spirit for this day. His words are not just about history but our current moment in time. They are full of the frustration I and many like me feel, but he also has hope for the future. A hope not yet realized but hope required nonetheless. Below is an excerpt from his speech that resonated with me:

 

Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold, that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that, the dumb might eloquently speak, and the “lame man leap as an hart.”

But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!

On Basic Needs: A Brooklyn-Based Reflection

This past Friday evening I was walking with a friend in Brooklyn and our walk took us deep into a Hasidic Jewish community in Williamsburg. It was about 10PM and the Jewish men were taking their post- Shabbat dinner walk around the neighborhood. The men walked in pairs and triplets talking amongst themselves and paying no attention to the two black women walking in their midst. My friend and I observed them, the occasional women and children, and the general peacefulness of the neighborhood. There were no cars whizzing by, no police officers on the street, and of all of the closed stores and shops we saw within a 15+ block stretch they were filled with necessities. It was a community seemingly focused on basic needs and each other.

Before long we crossed over a block and landed in the Bedford Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, a predominantly black area that was once known as the largest ghetto in the US. No more peace, parked cars, closed stores, and simply clothed families. Instead we were met my police, whizzing car and sirens, extraneous stores, complicated clothing, the works. It was like day and night and the startling contrast hit me and my friend like a ton of bricks. We began to talk about the differences between the community we exited and the one we entered, not to generalize it or set up a binary, but to grasp the profundity of the shift we experienced in the span of a few blocks. My friend pointed out that nothing was sold in that Jewish community that wasn’t needed, I noticed that too. There were no random clothing stores, no junk and processed-food laden bodegas, nothing in that neighborhood that wasn’t of necessity to the people. Capitalism wasn’t king in that swatch of Williamsburg, community and G-d were. It’s a self-sustaining community that usually doesn’t permit the interference of external businesses. It is a community that thrives on basic needs. This got me thinking about the work a friend of mine is currently doing to raise the basic need averages of 1 billion people–a lofty but a worthy goal to strive toward. When he or anyone else talks about wanting to raise the basic need averages of people in under-served communities do the people even understand what basic needs are? This is a serious question.

When a community is flush with extraneous businesses pushing wants as needs are the people truly aware of what the needs are? Or are they thinking that basic needs are actually the extraneous? This question is driven by the move of capitalism that exists even in the poorest of communities. Consumer goods are sold to people in these communities under the guise of need when in reality they are wants or a subpar quality of needs at best. Given the proliferation of this system, people in the community build up an appetite for consumption based on everything they don’t need. Thus my concern is that when we talk about increasing basic need averages we have to gain understanding of what inhabitants of under-served communities believe those basic needs are through on-the-ground observations and direct engagement with inhabitants of said communities. Then we must educate them about what basic needs are and how & what they should be fighting for not only for themselves but for future generations.

I don’t say any of this to imply that black communities need to be more like Jewish communities–although I do think they can learn some things about their structure. I say this because I believe there is a disparity that exists in knowledge of what basic needs are that is endemic to under-served communities such as those inhabited by black people. This is all based on observation of not only the communities I walked through on Friday night but communities I’ve seen over the years. And the bit of community development knowledge I have tells me that working toward the increase of basic needs averages is important but so is education that increases communal awareness about what those basic needs are in the first place.

Nevertheless, I am willing to be corrected on this matter and certainly would love to discuss this further with interested parties.