July 4, 2017
1. I’ve heard it said that it was the act of fighting and dying in the Civil War that earned slaves and freed Black people their citizenship rights.
There is obviously truth in that notion.
But leaving it there misses an important point. Citizenship rights shouldn’t have to be “earned.” They should be inalienable, natural, and universal, that is, derivative from our humanity. Clearly neither whiteness (nor gender nor property rights) should be a condition for obtaining and exercising these rights. Nor should they depend on combat credentials.
But, obviously, we don’t live in a just world in which full citizenship is the unqualified birthright of every person. In the case of the African American people, their unrelenting struggle for full citizenship rights continues to this day. And, as at the time of the Civil War, it carries great moral and political force not only because they spilled blood in the Civil War and wars that followed (despite the fact that Black troops were segregated and discriminated against until after World War II). But, more broadly, because they can righteously claim long seniority in this land, a singular and outsized contribution to the nation’s economic take off and subsequent development (obtained by violently coerced unpaid and then underpaid labor) and, not least, their front row position in every phase and dimension of the country’s democratic and progressive advance.
And that history also is the social and material basis for full restorative justice and remuneration on the stockpile of promissory notes earned by and owed to the African American community.
2. Below is an excerpt from Frederick’s Douglass on July 4, 1952 in Rochester, NY. It retains its power today, especially against the background of the rise of right four decades ago and Trump’s election last year.
“Fellow-citizens, I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. 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 bye-word to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union. 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 millions crush and destroy it forever!”
3. Here is a song, Independence Day, written and sung by Bruce Springsteen. Actually, it has nothing to do with July 4, except perhaps in a very roundabout way, But I thought I would include it in this post. It resonates deeply with me. It’s about Springsteen’s conflict and eventual break with his father.
I had a similar Independence Day. Like Springsteen, I had conflicted feelings toward my father in my younger years. He could be kind and gentle. He was never absent in a physical sense, and he provided for our family. I also knew his life hadn’t been easy. He lost his father and moved from Canada to Maine at a young age, dropped out of high school early on, and did sweated labor his whole working life. He also suddenly lost his first wife (my mother) in his early fifties and surely felt ill equipped to raise three young boys, which as it turned out he didn’t have to do, thanks to my elderly grandmother and my step mother whom he married a couple of years after my mother’s death.
But my father also struggled with the terrible illnesses of alcoholism and depression. And when drunk, which was too many weekends, he got mean and verbally abusive. Needless to say, that took its toll on me and the rest of the family. So much so that when my father reached the ugly side of drunk on Christmas Day 1968, as we were sitting down for dinner, I snapped and left the table, and took a bus to Portland where I spent a couple of nights in the YMCA before making my way back to Connecticut, where I was then living and going to school. I forget exactly what I said as I walked out the door on that cold, wintry day other than he would never see my face on a holiday again — a promise that I unfailingly kept to his final day.
At the time it seemed like the right thing to do, and even a half century later I still think I did what I had to do. If I have any regrets it is that we never found a way to talk about our troubled relationship, even when he was at death’s door. I told him how much I loved him as I sat by his hospital bed, but we left it at that. Neither one said a word about the earlier pain between us.
But since then I have had many imaginary conversations with him. In fact, as strange as it may seem, I sometimes wish that we could sit down for a good drinking session in a neighborhood bar. I figure that some of the walls of loneliness, heartache, and anger that surrounded and divided us might melt away as we drained a glass or two of beer. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but who knows? Sometimes drink can open a person’s heart and give voice to deep heartache, as the juke box plays and someone yells, “drinks all around.”
4. A left that doesn’t contest with the right over the meaning of national traditions, symbols, and historical events isn’t doing itself any favors. If we are looking for an example of someone who did this, we can probably do no better than to turn to the life and legacy of Martin Luther King. He was in my opinion the outstanding revolutionary democrat of the 20th century insofar as he sunk his program, oratory, and vision of radical democracy into the best of our nation’s traditions and broadly appealed to the American people.
5. Any strategic policy worth its salt should not only point out the main obstacle to social progress, but also the larger class and social forces that have to be assembled if there is any hope of slaying the immediate dragon and moving on to confront other dragons that block the doorway to freedom. Once this is done then a whole range of other questions — issues of struggle, forms of action, approach to unity, main sites of mass engagement as well as popular demands, slogans, and messaging become easier to resolve on grounds that move beyond individual political preferences and rest on larger objective realities.