There are cynical luxuries that come with being black in this country, like the ability to shrug off the dime-store rites of patriotism. We’ve seen America through a perpetually raised eyebrow, the yeah, whatever perspective that comes with the terrain on our side of American history. And here lies Presidents Day. Like July 4th, Thomas Jefferson and NASCAR— it comes awash in the crimson, white and navy trimming meant to remind us of our blessed status as Americans.
For most of my life, Presidents Day has been—aside from a day off—a crass interruption, a retaining wall built into Black History Month to ensure that we don’t forget whose terms we’re operating on. Even the name lacks purpose—there’s no weighty adjective to highlight why a president warrants a holiday; no devotion to, say, those commanders in chief who were assassinated or who led the nation through particularly trying times. Years ago it was known as Washington’s Birthday, which virtually guaranteed that some black people would give the notion the stiff-arm because honoring the first president means you are simultaneously celebrating a slaveholder.
But, as with all else concerning this country, it’s not that simple. Black history and Presidents Day share an ancestral link in Abraham Lincoln. There was, in the receding tides of black history, a point when many of us admired him. Carter G. Woodson, who understood Lincoln’s flaws better than most, nonetheless chose February for his inaugural “Negro History Week” because both Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were born that month.
And like all else concerning black people in this country, the interconnectedness of black history and American history has become more complex with age. Since Nov. 4, 2008, it has seemed little more than an indecipherable riddle of identity. There are those who saw the election returns and divined from them a declarative statement, a reply to Frederick Douglass’ enduring question, “What to the slave is the 4th of July?” Or maybe a libation poured for those souls who died clearing the route to this moment.
These are strange days. Last August, I was caught on camera waving an American flag at the Democratic National Convention. This from the man who, as a student activist at Howard University, was caught on camera lowering the flag and raising a red, black and green one in its place. The same man who scowled when a military chaplain handed my mother an American flag at my father’s funeral. During the uproar over the Confederate flags flying in Georgia, I frequently pointed out that black people suffered for far longer under the stars and stripes than we ever did under the stars and bars. And there are still no simple answers.
There are still voices that see Obama’s election as the ultimate gesture of cynicism, the moment at which a black face was put to the service of this nation’s global schemes and third-world adventurism. As the 44th president, Obama has necessarily fallen in with a checkered crowd: Washington, who laid out precise numbers of slaves to keep a perfect gender ratio of the Negroes he owned; Jefferson, who crossed out the lines in the Declaration of Independence that condemned the slave trade, copy editing black freedom out of existence. Jackson, who strangled abolitionist efforts and bought a black girl at an auction for his own entertainment; Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed civil rights laws but never relinquished his profane noun of choice for black people. Even Barack’s boy, Abraham Lincoln, was arm-twisted into glory and penned the Emancipation Proclamation as he struggled to exile freed blacks outside America’s borders. It’s this kind of thing that will make your head grow weary of pondering.
On the day after the election, one of my students announced to me that the question was no longer “What to the slave is the 4th of July” but “What to the African American is the 4th of November.” I didn’t have an answer for her then—and I still don’t. But when I figure that one out, I can holler back about the meaning of Presidents Day.
William Jelani Cobb is associate professor of history at Spelman College.