independence day: what is America, and who gets to decide?

This week Americans celebrate Independence Day, a holiday that cheers freedom and demonstrates patriotism, often with jorts, fireworks and excessive day drinking. Just as often, we mark the holiday with neighborhood bike parades, or BBQ and watermelon. Thinking about the various ways we spend our fourths of July leads me to also wonder what exactly it is that we are celebrating. Put another way, what is America, and who gets to decide?

Are we Lee Greenwood’s version? Proud, certain we are free and blessed, and familiar with the agricultural highlights of each state? Is Charlie Daniel’s vision of a national kumbaya correct? Will we “all stick together, you can take that to the bank. That’s the cowboys and the hippies, the rebels and the yanks?” Does Donald Glover get to decide? In “This is America” he reveals a country alive with movement and soul, but also littered with guns, violence, apathy and fear. Maybe Toby Keith gets it right, describing us as an international bar bouncer: “You’ll be sorry you messed with the U. S. of A; we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.” Do veterans who think we honor the whole America in the National Anthem by standing or kneeling get to decide what America is? On a national holiday that celebrates our origin story, it is worth thinking about who we think we are.

For many Americans, particularly those who celebrate our 45th President, America does represent freedom and independence. We are the magical land where people prove their worth through their work, where everyone gets a fair shot. God loves to bless us because we are His favorites (outside of Israel, of course). Real Americans have no need to protest anything, because we are great and protesters are just violent whiners. I like this idea of America, and sometimes wish I could believe it. I have learned, however, that in order to believe this is THE version of America, I have to erase more history than I remember. In order to believe, I have to ignore the fact that our country was founded to guarantee the freedom and equality of white men, and white men alone. I have to ignore that fact that we legally and intentionally oppressed, killed and stole from Native and Black peoples. I have to ignore the single mom in Appalachia who works incredibly hard but can’t establish her worth or sustainability to the world around her. 

I recognize these ideas can seem inflammatory, but I don’t write them to provoke. Instead, I am suggesting that we might best celebrate Independence Day by recognizing our entire history. We are both a country that loves our work ethic and a country that refuses to reward the hard work of some parts of our population. We are both a country that believes in equality and justice for all while sometimes legislating injustice and inequality. We are the home of the brave and yet we have punished displays of bravery in brown or female bodies. We cherish our religious freedom but we ban people on the basis of their religion. 

People who study American culture talk about our longstanding tradition of imagining American spaces really as white spaces. In our dominant cultural imagination, hard workers look like white workers. The American heartland looks like quilts sewn and fields plowed and pies baked by white hands. I know the mention of race is off-putting for some, but this is because many Americans have the privilege of not thinking about the cultural and historical racism that links color with suspicion. If we could recognize our passive linking of “real Americans” with “white Americans” then we might embrace our country’s entire story on this historical holiday.

This Independence Day, could we honor our nation’s legacy by thinking independently? Could we reject the narrative that the only way to be patriotic is to love Lee Greenwood and ignore Donald Glover? Could we listen to those who honor our flag by kneeling or standing? On July 4th, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. A group of brave white men in tights and wigs wrote an epic letter protesting the oppressive injustice of a group of powerful privileged men who refused to consider their perspective or value. The origin story of America is one of protest. Knowing this, it is hard to now accept the idea that those who protest are unpatriotic. Un-American.

I write this with a heavy heart, because I know the dangers of living in the middle space, where American failures and triumphs are remembered. I know the mention of white supremacy feels like an attack on America. While this gives me pause, I am even more afraid for all us if we continue to act as if America only belongs to a certain type of person. The thing that we celebrate on July 4th is the taking of power from a few and the sharing of power with the many. While we have yet to get this right, we come closer to living up to the American democratic ideal when we make room for all kinds of voices to share their experiences of America. This begins by remembering our whole history.

My three year old daughter has a funny speech pattern of addressing people with a possessive pronoun.  She calls her favorite neighbor “my Isabelle.” She says, “I want to go swim with my Emmett” or “I go play with my Marion.” Hearing her talk makes me think about what it means to claim a person. She is not trying to own them with her “my,” she is asserting her devotion to them. She is relationally bound by love and delight to these people. In an age where I hear angry voices claim, “He’s not my President,” or “They aren’t welcome in my America,” I want to celebrate the 4th of July by claiming my America. Our America, which has been exclusive and inclusive, brave and cowardly, bullying and welcoming, oppressing and dignifying...I love it enough to remember all of it. Let’s celebrate the whole America, and every person who helped build, cultivate and shape it. If we look closely, we’ll see that we lose very little, while we gain the ability to recognize that fear and greed reduce us as a people. We must see America as we really are in order to become the country we celebrate.

the state of us: on Memorial Day

For Memorial Day weekend, a lot of my family gathers at my parents’ home, where cousins swim, yard games are played, and huge meals are prepared by many hands.  This morning, around a table littered with breakfast remnants, the adults sat, forks in hand, unceremoniously sharing a large bowl of watermelon.  It was delicious, so firm as to be almost crunchy, with a depth of sweetness so refreshing I felt my body acknowledge that summer had, in fact, arrived. 

My husband expresses his delight in food with what I call aggressive affirmation.  It is not uncommon for him to throw a napkin, slam his hands on a table, or curse loudly when he tastes something he likes. “Are you kidding me? D#mn!” “Holy Sh?t! Does it get any better than this??” This morning, slapping his napkin, he asked, “How do you always have the best watermelon?”

My parents plant, cultivate and harvest a huge garden with their neighbors (#lifegoals), and they know a thing or two about growth.  “I pick the best because I check the bottom to make sure it’s yellow.  It means it sat in the dirt for a while to ripen. They didn’t pick it too early.  If you find one with a little dried mud on it, even better.”

A national holiday set aside to the idea of remembering seems kind of fabulous to me, and I’d like to explore how our collective discolored bottom can shape American memory.  Memory is a tricky thing. It is not fixed, not remembered in a vacuum, not fair.  A friend of mine cracks me up when her kids come home venting about a teacher in school.  She listens, waits a beat, then says, “I wonder how your teacher would tell this story?”  You see what she did there!  She reminds them their version is not the only, and might even be the least trustworthy one. 

Memories best reflect the past when they are contextualized with other memories.  Postmodern literature gets a bad rap among many Christians and conservatives for “playing with the truth.”  From my perspectives, postmodern thinking is incredibly helpful in getting at the nature of memory.  Single stories do not accurately describe people, just as single storytellers cannot capture the all of an experience.  We need multiple narrators in order to capture all the facets of light.

My sister and her husband arrived this weekend directly from our nation’s capitol.  Having visited the American museum, they were thinking about the stories we tell ourselves about what it means to be an American.  Should a few generous white folks who helped free slaves and fund their independent businesses be used to contextualize the terrible cruelty of the government and church sanctioned system of white supremacy and slavery? Yes, I think so.  Should it be given equal weight in a way that diminishes the evil grip slavery had and has on our American psyche? Not a chance. 

Should the fact that Andrew Jackson adopted a Native American child be used to contextualize our understanding of the man who slaughtered natives and forced the Trail of Tears? Yes, I think so.  Should that fact erase or minimize the devastating impact his leadership had on the lives of indigenous Americans? Not a chance.

Many of us are struggling this weekend with the new AG Sessions’ policy that ICE criminally charge any adult who crosses our border illegally, separating their kids from them in the process, sometimes permanently.  I have seen many pleas from heartbroken people who cry, “This cannot be happening in America! This is not who we are.”  These pleas evoke American ideals of compassion and generosity, and try to remind us that we are a people of justice, a beacon of humane morality for the world.  This notion exists because of the tricky nature of memory.  A robust telling of our history would remind us that American land was established, American wealth was created and American power has grown precisely through the forced removal of kids from their parents through the systemic dehumanization of slaves, native peoples, and immigrants. 

I say this as a proud American.  I recognize that acknowledging our history of evil practices is considered unpatriotic; however, I work very hard to seek our entire history, and I feel most patriotic when I acknowledge the good with the bad.  The American ideals of bravery and sacrifice are worth celebrating on Memorial Day.  It is incredible that we could create a government by, for and of the people, established on the principal that we are all equal and worthy of sharing the dream together.  I propose that it is does not diminish that idea in the least for us to admit that we were lying about the implementation then, have struggled to make it true for over 200 years, and probably aren’t getting it right now.  We set the bar really high! This Memorial Day, can we stop pretending we have consistently gotten it right? Can we instead celebrate by remembering and sharing all of our stories, even the tough ones?

It is easy to slice into a fabulous watermelon, slurping the juices down like a kid perched on a picnic table.  It is harder to remember that the sweetest watermelons are formed in the dirt.  This Memorial Day, I remember the good and the bad. I celebrate the fact that so many men in my family were honorable soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines.  But I also need to remember that many of them developed terrible addictions, didn’t get to meet their own kids until they were toddlers, or had wives who sacrificed their parenting partner, going it alone the majority of the time.  When I think about honoring my ancestors, my country, our legacy as Americans, I hope and pray I model their bravery enough to remember all of it.  If the only American History we memorialize is of good guys with guns in their hands, courage in their steps and stars in their eyes, then we forget how easily we can betray the sacrifices they made.  As Bono, of U2 sings, “It’s not a place / This country is to me a thought / That offers grace / For every welcome that is sought…It’s not a place / This is a dream the whole world owns / The pilgrim’s face / It had your heart to call her home...There’s a promise in the heart of every good dream / It’s a call to action, not to fantasy / The end of a dream, the start of what’s real / Let it be unity, let it be community / For refugees like you and me / A country to receive us.” 

Let’s celebrate the real America, ripening in the dirt, not the fantasy that blinds us to the work we need to do to honor the legacies of the best who came before us. Happy Memorial Day.

incomplete education, incomplete america

I am the victim of an incomplete education.  Most of us are.  I attended excellent schools and am grateful for the many ways I was invited into excellence, rigor and curiosity; however, like most Americans, I was exposed primarily to curricula written, sourced and designed by white Americans.  The last two decades have revealed the large gaps in my knowledge and the work I must do to find a complete education.  Having now encountered the incredible diversity of thought that functionally shaped America, I realize the insularity—the poverty even—of our educational norms.  Aware of this, I have spent Black History Month as an apologist for a more robust education, as I remind us that American writing, thinking and creating is the product of many distinct voices.  We have an incredible wealth of cultural, literary, historical and artistic legacies from every race, and we are diminished as a people when these voices are not actively taught in our schools. 

When we are primarily exposed to American history and literature through the work of white folks, we are taught to privilege white perspectives.  We begin to believe important cultural trends and innovations come exclusively from one segment of society.  This narrow exposure lays a foundation for cultural racism, suggesting that people of color are physical in nature, while white people, with their higher order thinking and artistic expressions, meaningfully impact our national narratives, our literary heritage, and the production of culture. 

Can we examine our cultural understanding of ourselves to make room for all those who contributed? 

American culture and history have been shaped by the voices, inventions and perspectives of a rich variety of people from all walks of life.  The idea of American democracy suggests that every person has value and is capable of contributing to our whole in necessary ways.  It is disingenuous for us to believe this while also pretending as if every important contribution to the common good came from one race of people.  Although this hypocrisy that affirms equality while codifying systems of inequality is one of our great national habits, America itself has nevertheless been deeply influenced by contributions from all types of people. 

In the South we love to think about our culture as one of genuine hospitality, gorgeous grounds, fine food and excellent music.  Because we have a legacy of erasing or diminishing the contributions of people of color, our educations failed to teach us that so many Southern traditions only exist because people of color worked independently or collaboratively with whites to create norms of hospitality in settings we cherish.  In many famed Southern kitchens, black cooks created the recipes published by white chefs, now beloved as Southern heritage.  There is mounting evidence that whiskey distilling was mastered by enslaved men.  Indeed, Jack Daniel’s Distillery now explains that Jack himself learned to distill from a slave named Nearis Green.  Best practices in agriculture, building, sewing and carpentry were perfected by people of color.  I offer these anecdotes to remind us any American historical narrative that does not include the contributions of black people is incomplete. 

Most of us understand that our musical heritage is not complete without the contributions of jazz and the blues, the vast majority of which was created by African Americans.  Jazz and rock n roll were largely commodified by whites but created by black Americans; indeed, Elvis became famous by publishing songs first performed by black folks.  What do we sacrifice if we examine our cultural understanding of ourselves to make room for all those who contributed?  Our educational norms often fail to reflect our entire heritage, but we need not remain in ignorance. 

Our cultural norms, heritage, conceptions of self, and identities are, in fact, shaped by the many brown, black and white voices of America. 

Some of our best early links between literature, sociology and ethnography were established by black writers like Zora Neale Hurston.  A gifted writer of fiction in her own right, Hurston travelled through Florida recording the stories of African Americans as they experienced the world.  Hurston helped prove that anthropology is incomplete without ethnography and auto-ethnography.  Many of us were taught to celebrate early writers who noticed such cultural differences through travel like Herman Melville or Mark Twain.  Black writers like James Weldon Johnson and Paule Marshall, far less read, continued and advanced this style of writing about the helpful collaborations and differences one discovers as they travel at home and abroad.  Acknowledging the pull of diaspora while claiming our full history speaks powerfully into our current discussions about identity and the ways that we explore national loyalties.  If such voices were celebrated in education then we might be better equipped to now face a world in which citizenship, migration and nationality seem to clash in violent ways. 

In school, many of us were exposed through literature to the tension women face as they struggle to position themselves as whole subjects with needs, wants and the agency to act on those needs and wants.  We read Emily Dickinson or Kate Chopin or Sylvia Plath, celebrating the singularity of their voices.  Many of us were not exposed to writers like Nella Larson or Maya Angelou, though, who wrote compellingly of the intersection of gender and race in a woman’s desire for agency.  Larsen’s work is accessible, exploring the life choices of a disappointed upper class woman in a way that Chopin’s work can’t.  Activists like Sojourner Truth revealed the subtle ways that the voices of black women were diminished, doubted and ignored.  She was a forerunner to feminism, asserting that gender and racial binaries can be used to silence women who do not conform to cultural norms. 

So many voices shaped American identity, and we need not privilege African American contributions at the expense of Anglo Americans.  Our cultural norms, heritage, conceptions of self, and identities are, in fact, shaped by the many brown, black and white voices of America.  Our educational norm is to celebrate and memorialize the white voices, rather than to openly teach a wide variety of perspectives, recognizing the myriad voices that shaped American culture, literature and history.  We are not products of black labor and white innovation; we are the culmination of many voices expressing their God-given giftedness to help us translate and understand experiences of life in America.  Historical erasure ensures that we are victims of this incomplete education.  The hope of this moment is that diminished voices have always existed, we only need to recognize our deficits and do the work to complete our education.  All month I have tweeted books written by people of color.  Follow @ExpandYourUs if you want to start reading!