The eminent James Baldwin wrote in Notes of a Native Son, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright.”
Baldwin wrote compellingly, exquisitely, and fiercely about race, class, and sex in America, about racial violence and structural injustice, about white supremacy in all its malignant forms. It feels fitting to turn to a luminary such as Baldwin today, as the “president” congests the streets with a display of militarism and hyper-nationalism designed to honor his presidency. It screams of totalitarianism, so eerily reminiscent of military parades in dictatorships. Google “Hitler” or “Putin” or Mao, and you will realize the troubling similarities. And if you are like me, you will feel like vomiting. Read this for more trenchant lines on the parallels.
In the last three years, the pain of racism, discrimination, violence and poverty have been compounded by this Administration. Certainly, the violence undergirding the power of this country has always been problematic. Never have we truly reckoned with the excruciating history of the treatment of indigenous people, slavery, mob violence of the South, lynching, the mass incarceration of black and brown, the “war on drugs,” police brutality, the discrimination and torture of LGBTQ people, the deeply ingrained oppression of women.
We have problems. We have had problems since the very beginning. We were founded on these problems. Ever heard of Manifest Destiny? Dehumanization fueled land conquest, agriculture, industry, and politics. We have, at times, self-corrected, but not nearly enough. And sometimes, in the process of claiming progress, “Look how far we have come!” we have masked the depth of the problems, like putting a Band-Aid on a cancer patient and calling her healed.
Several years ago, I attended a lecture given by Ta-Nehisi Coates. He said, in essence, that Americans cannot claim the Declaration of Independence without claiming the history of racism in the United States. We cannot claim Martin Luther King Jr. or Barack Obama without understanding the forces of history, division, dehumanization that allowed this current president to be elected. We cannot claim and celebrate the good pieces of American history for ourselves without reckoning with the brutality, terror, and profound injustice of our nation’s history. The both/and of liberty and justice. Freedom may indeed be a gift, but if history tells us anything, it is highly selective. Liberation only happens through the processes of justice.
The more I read about the pain of black, brown, and indigenous people, the further my heart breaks and my blood boils. I, too, am a brown woman. I am the daughter of an immigrant. I am biracial, the product of hope, the product of love across boundaries. And yet, I have blind spots. I feel absolved in ways I sometimes shouldn’t. I must remind myself still – though my family is composed of too many nationalities and shades of brown to count – that I, too, have blind spots.
I am deeply proud of my family’s history, of being biracial, of being a woman, of being sensitive…but I must adopt the practice of turning toward the history we all must claim together and of listening to and learning from the women and men who bear deeper pain, who have endured greater trauma, who have clearer ways of seeing. Their wisdom matters more, and I look to them, even as I reckon with what my own body and experiences mean for my own life, and as Baldwin says, my own moral compass.
Chills ran through me when I saw the Declaration of Independence for the first time in person. It looked so fragile, and yet, there were the resonant words, “we the people.” When Barack Obama won both elections, I cried tears of joy and relief with my family, all while knowing that racism was no less pernicious than it had been for the preceding centuries.
“Independence” is a beautiful word. It can mean freedom or self-determination. To me, it implies flourishing. But it is a word that can also be distorted, as we know, drawing individuality into rugged individualism, sovereignty into domination, wholeness and satisfaction violent displays of nationalism.
Together, we are a project. We are not homogeneous. We do not “believe, behave, and belong” (as the public theologian Elizabeth Oldfield writes) in uniform ways. It is in these differences that our beauty and our potential for change lies. Healing first embraces pain. It requires listening and understanding. When we are in pain, our body is shouting at us, “do you not see this?! Pay attention, for God’s sake!!” We are a country with rivers of pain.
Today, in taking stock of our history and our present, there seems more to be ashamed of than proud of. Perhaps the focus on Independence Day should not be patriotism, but rather courage. The best question to ask may be: what does it take to be courageous in mind and in action at this particular moment in American history? Courage, which is sustained by compassion and clarity, often, in this country of ours, can often look like, “No, not this. We can be better, together, than this.” This, in other words, is dissent, another founding principle of American democracy.
In the midst of chaos and heartbreak, we are still lucky for the freedoms we have that we so often take for granted. The freedom to speak, the freedom to gather, the freedom to pray, the freedom to love, our human rights. Though these freedoms have so often been threatened, we together strive and should strive to make sure freedom is given justly, that the flourishing of everyone is protected, and that all are welcome and safe on this ground.