what the liberty bell teaches

 In 1751, the Pennsylvania Assembly commissioned a large bell to mark the 50th anniversary of the state’s original constitution, written by William Penn in 1701. The bell’s inscription was taken from Leviticus, a Book in the Pentateuch, or the first five Books of the Bible. It reads: “Proclaim Liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Visit Philadelphia today and you will see—you might even feel—that the Liberty Bell embodies our national pride and spirit. We believe in the message the bell represents, and we love the idea of freedom, ringing loudly throughout the land and reminding us all of who we hope to be.

This week, as we eat soggy pasta salad and slurp crisp slices of watermelon, toasting our nation and celebrating our unique commitment to freedom, we will think fondly of this liberty. We will lift our eyes skyward, searching for every exploding light, and feel pride at the idea that liberty means something to us Americans. We will remember that we one day decided, collectively, that it was worth sacrificing everything in order to be free. We will continue to boast even now about the lengths we will take to protect our freedom. Don’t tread on us.

 It is true that America loves its liberty; it is also true that American notions of liberty have always coincided with American practices of exclusion. American liberty has an asterisk, for it has historically meant freedom for some and definitely not for all.

When early Pennsylvanians decided to make a state house bell whose toll would remind people of liberty, they choose words that captured the expansive concept of liberty: liberty only works if it is for all of us. The irony, of course, is that in 1701, in 1751, and even in 1851 “all the inhabitants” of the land were neither liberated nor proclaiming any such thing. This conflict is the tricky problem with American memory and celebrations of our history. We cling to our stated values, while ignoring—erasing even—those not deemed worthy of inclusion.

30 years after the Pennsylvania bell was commissioned, the New Hampshire state convention named the enemy of liberty, saying, “The love of power is so alluring that few have ever been able to resist its bewitching influence.” New Hampshirites seemed to know that liberty requires ongoing sacrifice because power and greed are equally alluring ideals. What the Pennsylvania delegates failed to recognize is that proclaiming liberty for all inhabitants requires shared sacrifice; otherwise the freedom of the many will be sacrificed for the liberty of the few. Liberty and power must be held in tension, especially in communities where equality is espoused.  

Liberty, first dreamed up by those early signers of the Declaration, and then made real by the brave men who died for the freedom to govern themselves, was costly. When a young United States of America celebrated its 20th Independence Day, many Americans were right to toast our independence from tyrannical Britain. Many other inhabitants of America must have choked on the celebratory cries, knowing those who rejected the tyranny of Europe had no trouble at all using abusive power to limit those around them.

The Liberty Bell, as we now remember it, as a beacon of hope, of equality, of shared sacrifice, did not come to signify these expansive and inclusive ideals until resisting voices took the Bell at its word, and reclaimed it as a symbol for those previously excluded from the idea of American freedom. Abolitionists popularized and made famous the Liberty Bell as an American icon, and they did so simply by calling Americans to be who they claimed to be: Be people willing to pursue liberty for all folks, rejecting abusive power as a means to personal liberty.

Those resisting voices were accused of desecrating the intent of the inscription and the meaning of the bell in American history. However, those abolitionists were deeply loyal to the values celebrated by Americans. History is complicated, and they knew liberty and power were not the same thing. They knew our hypocrisy would destroy us unless we began to realize that liberty for all requires limits be placed on personal power.

Today, these familiar ideals will continue to divide us as a society unless we hear from all those who talk about American liberty, what it means, who its for, and how it works. We cannot reserve liberty for a few while many suffer. As we celebrate Independence Day, perhaps we should think not just about the Liberty Bell, its history and inscription, but also its crack, and the obvious vulnerabilities in our shared history. We need to elevate resisting voices who remind us that we all have a claim to liberty, just as we all have to sacrifice in order to live in community with those around us.

Despite the problematic nature of many of our American symbols and the historical erasure embedded within them, the Liberty Bell holds lessons for all of us who care about our country: The presence of a crack does not diminish the value of the symbol. Resisting voices who help us understand the many implications of liberty do not dilute the power of patriotism. Understanding our deeply rooted hypocrisy does not detract from our striving to form a more perfect union. Acknowledging our mistakes does not destroy our pride as Americans.

Facing a complete history, which welcomes every perspective of who we have been and who we might become, which celebrates our symbols even as we notice their flaws, is perhaps the most American way to celebrate the birth of our nation. After all, we are a country born out of the notion that all men are created equal, and we cherish this idea even as we often fail to act on this core belief. To be American is to know big dreams are realized with small steps and shared sacrifices. This 4th of July, I want to believe our hopes for liberty and equality can coexist, and that they matter enough for us to notice how we fail to live up to our own American dreams. Learning America’s history—the noble, the hypocritical, the celebrated and the erased—issues an invitation to all of us to sacrifice for the stunning American idea that every inhabitant is created equally and for liberty. What a dream.

black history reads!

As the days of our annual effort to celebrate Black History wind down, I offer a reading list derived from my February tweets. Idealist that I am, I suppose I hope you will make a habit of searching for and then relishing the rich cultural traditions that our American educational system has often minimized or erased.

Don’t be the victim of an incomplete education. I spent nearly 24 years getting educated, and I would have missed so much of the literature and history that now shape my vision of community, heighten my awareness of the breadth of human experience, and humble me at the stunning beauty of the resilient human soul, had I not finally, in Graduate School at the University of Miami, been exposed to brilliant voices of color. I fell in love with their words and stories, and I invite you to discover the beauty and brilliance that captured my imagination and respect. These voices have, in fact, shaped the places we call home, and it is time we recognize and delight in them. Enjoy!

#BlackHistoryMonth Reads!

Clair of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

Haitian, now Miamian whose poetic prose crafts a story about the devastation of poverty, the trauma and hope of adoption, & the choices we make for the people we love. Gorgeous book!

Omeros by Derek Walcott

Saint Lucian Nobel Prize winning poet who offers a postcolonial, African, diasporic reworking of Homer in this epic poem. Caribbean poetry at its best!

 

A Gathering of Old Men By Ernest Gaines

Gaines grew up in Louisiana & writes better than anyone about the importance of community in our efforts to tell our own stories. For Gaines, confessing the way we participate in oppression brings healing.

 

An American Marriage By Tayori Jones

A remarkable novel that tracks the devastation of incarceration on a family system, the conflicting legacies our families leave us, & the ambivalent journey we all must take to claim (or even understand) agency.

 

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem By Maryse Conde

Telling the backstory of a West Indian woman mentioned in the historical record & imagined first in Miller’s The Crucible, this novel troubles the history of the Americas from a postcolonial point of view.

 

Americanah

Feminist Manifesto By Chimananda Ngozi Adichie

A Nigerian writer who also lives in the US, Adichie offers stunning clarity into how we find our normal, & how we manage our national, class, gendered & political identities.

 

Passing By Nella Larsen

Written out of the Harlem Renaissance about the Harlem Renaissance, Larsen writes of friendship & loyalty, the temptation to perform our race, and the fluid nature of identity. A beautiful, heartbreaking book.

 

Feeding the Ghosts By Fred D’Aguiar

A Guyanese poet, novelist and playwright, D’Aguiar’s novel reveals the excruciating acts of resistance that empowered the victims of the middle passage. Haunting & empowering, it stays with you.

 

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man By James Weldon Johnson

Johnson captures the rich creativity and cosmopolitanism of the Harlem Renaissance, all on a backdrop of racial ambiguity, power dynamics and cultural appropriation. Fantastic.

 

To Pimp a Butterfly By Kendrick Lamar

Pulitzer Prize Winning poet who deconstructs the American experience in stunning ways. Lamar elevates and explores the fluid nature of identity construction in the search for agency.

 

Between the World and Me

Black Panther By Ta-nehisi Coates

Wielding comic book power, long form cultural critique (the Atlantic) & the memoir as a force for contextualizing historical erasure, Toni Morrison calls him “required reading.” So, yeah.

 

Cane By Jean Toomer

Toomer’s only novel is remarkable for his fearlessness in content & form. He raises questions about the possibilities & realities of black lives in various parts of the country, showing the gap between the dream & the reality.

 

The Underground Railroad By Colson Whitehead

Whitehead’s novel sears images of abuse and courageous sacrifice into our American collective consciousness, calling us back to a history we erased through his liberal imagination.

 

I’m Still Here By Austin Channing Brown

A prophetic witness to the indignities of carrying one’s blackness into nearly all-white spaces, Brown narrates her life, revealing deep wells of resistance & calling everyone to sit at a new table.

 

The Hate U Give By Angie Thomas

Thomas burst onto the literary scene, shaping the shared experience of a generation of young people seeking to reach across lines of difference as they understand what it means to grow up knowing BlackLivesMatter.

 

Blake, or the Huts of America By Martin Delaney

Written across the African diaspora in the Americas, Delaney articulates a vision for resisting racialized oppression through black nationalism. Politically intuitive, he shapes a generation.

 

Mama Day  

The Women Of Brewster Place By Gloria Naylor

Naylor describes and celebrates black women, celebrating the places they belong, the homes they create and the power they display. Beautiful texts.

 

My Brother

See, Now, Then

Autobiography of my Mother By Jamaica Kincaid

Antiguan born, Kincaid writes better than anyone on the ongoing erasure of African diasporic peoples, of the complicated mobilities/voices left in colonialism’s wake.

 

Invisible Man By Ralph Ellison

Ellison’s iconic text makes room in the American canon for the voices and bodies of those whose presence shape & form a nation who refuses to acknowledge their existence. DuBois’ musings come to life here.

 

Sing, Unburied, Sing

Salvage the Bones By Jesmyn Ward

Ward crafts tales about generations and the places that shaped them, about families who survive at great cost, about systems that destroy us. She reminds me of Faulkner...

 

Paradise

The Bluest Eye

Beloved

Sula By Toni Morrison

Too many to list & too necessary to describe, Morrison writes so compellingly that literature in America had to readjust, not just to make room, but to place her stories in the center.

 

The Awkward Thoughts Of W Kamau Bell By Kamau Bell

Hilarious and pitch perfect, Bell describes what it means to create art as a defiant act of communal meaning making in an age of independent arrogance. You will laugh and cry, and wonder.

 

Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? By Beverly D Tatum

She gave sociological roots to a necessary reality: in the best hope for integration we all have to find a way to belong. The updated introduction is CRUCIAL.

 

Notes of a Native Son

Go Tell it on the Mountain By James Baldwin

Baldwin epitomized the beauty of Black cosmopolitanism, as black cultural appreciation rose in America, the West Indies, and France among others. Gorgeous writing.

 

Ordinary Light

Life on Mars By Tracy K Smith

Our National Poet Laureate, Smith is an artist, a mom, a poet, a philosopher, a prophet, and a pro. Her voice is shaping our time, in real time.

 

On Beauty By Zadie Smith

Everything she writes is worth reading. Her way with words is so gorgeous that one could be forgiven for overlooking the astounding insights about humanity she layers into each page. She is the best writer going...

 

Selected Poems By Langston Hughes

His way of capturing the angst, the pride, the grief, the beauty, the longing, the being...of black folks in America...simply can't be matched. He's better than you remember.

 

Homegoing By Yaa Gyasi

Capturing the migratory paths of a family, Gyasi layers intra-African journeys on top of the Middle Passage, then explores diasporic wanderings across America as figures discover & create meaningful contexts for life.

 

Bonus pics (because February is too short!)!

The Color Purple By Alice Walker

The Dragon Can't Dance By Earl Lovelace

Black Skin, White Masks By Frantz Fanon

Brown Girl, Brownstones and Praisesong for the Widow By Paule Marshall

The Piano Lesson By August Wilson

 

This is not who we are!! Right?!

This week US Border Agents sprayed tear gas on men, women, children and babies trying to illegally and legally enter our country as immigrants or asylum seekers at our Southern border. In Alabama, at a mall crowded with holiday shoppers, police shot and then refused medical intervention to a black man—a veteran—who was there. They mistakenly assumed he was killing people, while the real shooter escaped unharmed. In elections earlier this month, we elected leaders who openly use dehumanizing language to describe non-white people or who were credibly accused of sexual assault or fraud.

As we view this recent history, our responses vary. Outraged, some protest, screaming, “This has got to stop!” Others grieve, sobbing, “Lord, have mercy.” Many refuse to look, calling it “fake news.” Overwhelmed, some shrug their shoulders, choosing apathy instead of compassion. Still others, bewildered, utter a desperate plea: “This is not who we are! Right?!”

This is exactly who we are, though. An examination of our history (importantly, not the history reflected by most secondary school standards) reveals that our country, our wealth and our cultural norms are built at the expense of people who are neither white nor Christian. I don’t say this as political accusation or hyperbole, but as a person who has studied a country and a church that I love. We are faithful and brave and willing to sacrifice for others. We also have a history of choosing ourselves first, of excusing unspeakable horrors in the name of God’s blessing to us. The protestant underpinnings of our founding affirm racial hierarchy as part of God’s good design. This led us (and leads us) to justify mission work toward and violence against people of color who were not aligned with the faith. These beginnings are rarely acknowledged, and despite the fact that we continue to take steps toward equality and universal human rights, our majority is suspicious of non-white people, and our cultural norms protect this perspective.

Interested in our national cognitive dissonance—we support a status quo of racialized injustice, while also insisting we do not have a race problem—I think a lot about how we got here, and believe we privilege greedy theologies and nationalistic governance. The great news is that we don’t have to stay here. You can decide to be different today, and you can start by examining our collective history, your individual bias and instinctive beliefs about others, about normal, about right. If we do not engage in these ways, we’ll stay here, and the news of this week will continue, indefinitely.

We have to learn to speak up, not just for the bad, but for the good. As my mom often reminds me, speak up for the good you see, for the choices that value life and honor dignity! Celebrate courage and quiet generosity. Do justice and love mercy. We the people are forming the America we live in. If you think we are better than our most selfish, grasping instincts, then you must develop a capacity to acknowledge and confront those instincts in yourself. We are the people we complain about and those we believe in, and we need to examine how we got here in order to agree with the direction we are heading. If we understand American culture and wealth is built on hierarchies, we can begin to engage in rejecting the fruit that grows out of those systems.

If you find the courage to name and challenge the poison of assumed superiority, though, you might lose your own capital in the process. We tend to demonize folks who challenge the status quo because it can lead to changing the status quo, removing any comfort found there. It is worth noting that cultural norms typically do not support points of view that challenge unacknowledged bias. Consider with me a group of wealthy men gathering for poker or to fish or for drinks, who feel they don’t have to be “careful” in their environment. Imagine one of them referring to women in less-than-honoring ways, and uttering statements about other races or ethnicities based on uninformed stereotypes. His derogatory speech offends those around him. He dehumanizes fellow humans, adhering to notions of gendered and racial hierarchies that are outrageous and inappropriate. It is not okay, ever, under any circumstances to speak of another human the way that he does. The men hanging out with him KNOW THIS to be true, but they freeze, caught between what they know to be wrong and what cultural norms approve. If a man finds the courage to speak up, to confront him or even engage him in conversation, quietly confessing he is bothered by this language, that brave man would ruin the moment. Cultural norms are so powerful that they absolve the racist, sexist man and indict the man who dares to say, “I’m bothered by the way you speak about the women and people of color with whom we all work and worship and live.” The man who speaks up becomes the man who steps out of line, not the man who uttered hate speech. This is the power of cultural norms to destroy us all.

In order for equality and universal value to become normal, we have to challenge every norm that asserts the opposite. It is tempting for some to choose apathy, to stand aloof, to shrug our shoulders when we see evidence that we are erasing our history or assuming value based on race or gender; nevertheless, choosing apathy props up the America we all claim does not exist. Others are tempted to protest, to launch a non profit, to wage war on Twitter or reddit, even while they remain silent when a colleague, churchgoer or family member speaks with bias against another group. We must learn to speak up in every arena we enter.

 We are actively creating the America we inhabit, and as long as we give biased norms the most power, they will control and divide us. We will stay exactly as we are, in hierarchies of race, gender and wealth that refuse to acknowledge themselves, unless we take the brave steps required to change our norms. For the past few weeks, these essays have discussed the courage and independence required to challenge the status quo. I’ll end this series with this final thought: If we want to be a country where everyone is treated as a valuable human, then we must take responsibility for, and speak up against, messages we hear that conflict with this idea.