I love any excuse for a cookout. My father is from Texas, lives in St. Louis (two places famous for ribs), and was raised on barbecue. He probably has St. Louis’ own Maull’s BBQ sauce in his veins instead of blood.
During the spring and summer, he typically hauls out the grill for a series of holidays—Memorial Day, Juneteenth and the Fourth of July. Of those holidays, the only one my father seemed to really have a true affinity for was Juneteenth, mostly because it’s a Texas holiday celebrating the end of slavery and ... quite obviously ... we are black Americans. It makes sense to want to acknowledge the very liberation of your ancestors from a living horror.
Memorial Day isn’t an issue because we have quite a bit of military in the family, including relatives who died fighting overseas. Of course you’d want to honor their sacrifice and the sacrifice of others.
The Fourth of July, though?
I’m just here for the ribs.
My parents didn’t teach me to question patriotism and nationalism—the city of St. Louis did. I went to public school in North County, where we did the Pledge of Allegiance every day, where I learned American folks songs, military songs and various national hymns and was taught American history.
But also in St. Louis, quite a few black people didn’t even bother going to the city’s annual Fourth of July celebration—Fair St. Louis, formerly the VP Fair, aka the “Veiled Prophet” Fair, which was a celebration hosted by a shadowy, secret high society that was white-only until the 1970s. (No, I’m for real. This is not a drill. They got a guy who looks like a fancy wizard/Klansman and everything.)
I never asked to go to the VP Fair, although I often wanted to watch the fireworks on television. My parents regularly recounted the time in 1987 when they shut down the Eads Bridge between St. Louis and East St. Louis to keep black East St. Louisans from coming to the fair under the guise of a “security measure.” Or that time local activist Percy Green organized the “unmasking” of the literal veiled prophet (it was the executive vice president of Monsanto), which remains the stuff of legend. In 1972, activist Gena Scott literally slid down a cable to snatch the veil off.
When this is your foundation for the Fourth of July—a fair and parade you can’t go to because your parents don’t want to support a shadowy cabal of local white business folks who are obsessed with flaunting their clout—you don’t exactly grow up going, “Rah, rah, America!” It’s more like, “Pass the potato salad” and keep it moving.
And life kept reinforcing this for me, over and over again. That this holiday, like many things in America, wasn’t created with me in mind, but since my parents happily prepared massive meals on this day, to feast was fine.
I learned that my devouring of BBQ on America’s birthday was and is not an endorsement. Sometimes ribs are just ribs. Potato salad is just a salad. Sitting out in the sun to enjoy time with friends and family is about your friends and family. And the Fourth of July is the celebration of a country that up until the 1990s would have happily shut down a bridge to keep me from celebrating it.
Black America’s relationship status with America will be forever listed as, “It’s complicated.”