The Fourth of July is complicated for me.
It's my country's birthday and a national holiday. But I'm not going to wave a miniature Old Glory or dress up like Uncle Sam in red, white and blue. If I go out after dark to see fireworks and listen to John Philip Sousa's war music, it's because of the colorful and loud show, not some button-popping nationalistic pride. In fact, I may skip it; I did last year and the year before that.
I don't hate America. But, I don't love it. And I'm not leaving it, either. Such ambivalence makes Independence Day the most awkward holiday of them all for me.
I've read about how other black Americans are just as perplexed as I am by the Fourth of July and the annual orgies that seem to mock those of us who decline to join in their hollow celebrations.
Frederick Douglass, one of the greatest American patriots, used this day in 1852 to draw attention to the hypocrisy and disparity of the nation's ideals. That speech raised the question: "What to the slave is the Fourth of July?"
Of course, slavery is no more, abolished before the end of Douglass' life. However, what the great abolitionist said still reverberates in my soul:
"Fellow citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions!" Douglass said. "To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages."
Another great American, Langston Hughes, took another tack. During the Harlem Renaissance, he boldly asserted his native and national birthright, even if denied its bounty:
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong. . .
I, too, am America.
But for me, a child of the Great Society of the 1960s, Independence Day reminds me of how far this nation has yet to travel from the over-optimistic expectations of my youth.
And, it brings to mind yet again the painful teachings of author and scholar David Bradley, who isn't nearly as famous as Douglass or Hughes—but ought to be.
Bradley, who teaches creative writing at the University of Oregon, wrote an autobiographical essay—titled "Black and American, 1982: There Are No Good Times to Be Black in America, But Some Times Are Worse Than Others"—in which he longed for a moment in this country "where it would be possible to give a socially meaningful description of who I am and what I've done without using the word black at all."
I have kept a clipping of that essay ever since it was published in the May 1982 issue of Esquire magazine. At that time, I was embarking on my career as a reporter for my hometown newspaper with the naïve notion that ambition and ability would carry me and so many other black Americans to the same unlimited vistas as our fellow white citizens.
I was convinced that someday I would write something that challenged Bradley's nihilism. I would extol my generation's triumph, up from Douglass' slavery to sit and dine as an American at Hughes' big table.
This was, after all, America. Or so I thought.
But, I was young and naïve. And, now more than a quarter century later, I must sadly conclude that he was right all along. While much has changed, so much more needs to change. Ask Barack Obama, who may be the nation's next president, how difficult it is demonstrate patriotism while wearing black skin?
And now as so much of America celebrates July 4, 2008 with self-satisfied and ignorant pride, I'm reminded just how well Bradley understood—and foreshadowed—my disappointment with the nation's struggle to see black America as it sees itself.
All this whooping and hollering on the nation's birthday is painful because even when I squeeze myself into the party, I remain excluded. So, yes, I now accept Bradley's defeatist corollary: "Nothing I shall ever accomplish or discover or earn or inherit or buy or sell or give away—nothing I can ever do—will outweigh the fact of my race in determining my destiny."
That's neither very American, nor a cause to celebrate.
Sam Fulwood III is a regular contributor to The Root.