Black, on the Fourth of July

John Sloan, Co-Lead Organizer BLMDetroit @jsloan3 @DetroitBLM

As a typical child of the Eighties, I remember growing up surrounded by “Americana”. I was regaled with stories of my grandfather and his brothers fighting valiantly in WWII. I proudly memorized the Pledge of Allegiance, and knew every verse of “America, The Beautiful.” My life was not all that dissimilar to any other kid growing up in the great state of Michigan.

The difference, however, is that the Americana I grew up with was filtered through dramatically different lenses. The powerful and stories of boot camps and dogfights were balanced with my grandfather’s experience as a Tuskegee Airman. The verses to “Lift Every Voice And Sing” were embedded in my remembrance with an almost religious conviction. And, while I stood every morning and pledged “allegiance” to the Stars and Stripes, the “Stars and Bars” were vividly on display — even causing my parents to avoid driving us through cities like Howell, MI, for fear of physical violence.

My sense of Americana was then and is now dramatically different from millions of other American citizens’ — and therein lies my struggle.

I want to celebrate my nation. I want to cheer for fireworks and awe at parades marched to the music of John Philip Sousa. I want to love my country with an unfailing faith. But the older I get, the harder that becomes.

As with the famous Frederick Douglass speech “What to a slave is the fourth of July?” I seek the answer to a very similar question: What does it mean to celebrate a National Holiday?

Does it mean you rejoice in an overarching ideal — celebrating in the freedoms that result of an open democratic society? Is your spirit shaken when confronting the dichotomy of this nation’s birth? Or, perhaps, the truth somewhere in the middle? Let’s take Columbus Day as an example.

…wait, no…that’s too easy.

This past Fourth of July was, for me, very difficult. I could not find my way to celebrating the birth of a nation that was stolen through genocide. I struggled to find joy in a struggle for freedom by a nation that would continue to build its economic wealth on the backs of slaves.

Let me clarify — Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Labor Day are not on the table in this discussion. I would never argue against celebrating our Veterans or championing the achievements of the American work force. I will leap at any and every opportunity to honor the men and women that have given their last full measure of devotion in service of our country. These precious days are set aside to allow a nation to grieve, rejoice, or honor collectively. They are vital to the overarching American consciousness and, in my humble opinion, merely scrape the tip of the proverbial iceberg in paying homage to true Great American Heroes.

My struggle lies in the dichotomy of celebrating a holiday’s overarching ideal (“freedom from tyranny”, for example) and the truth of its origin.

What does it mean for me, as a Black Man, to openly celebrate our nation’s “birth”?

I cannot, with any integrity, celebrate the America that existed in 1776. That “America” was one steeped in every “ist” and “ism” imaginable; laying the foundation for a society by which I am dehumanized on a daily basis. Whether in the overtly institutionalized racism and sexism, or the only somewhat more subtle forms of classism — that “America” was barely a fully fertilized embryo, an infant of an idea, and yet bigotry was already being warmed as formula in a baby’s bottle.

Every current institution of oppression has that “America” to thank for its existence. Who do we thank for redlining and housing discrimination? Thank the Stars & Stripes. Want to know who’s responsible for cultural monetization and appropriation? Good ‘ole America the beautiful. Every time a Black or Brown body is beaten, raped, and then vilified without regard for their existence? You guessed it, our “founding fathers” laid that framework as well. The system is not broken; it’s working exactly how it was intended.

As I alluded to earlier with my Columbus Day pun, the “America” of 1776 was birthed of Original Sin, and fattened on the sucklings of dehumanization. And, I have no stomach to celebrate that nation.

It would be very easy for me to leave this column as such; to tie everything up in a nice and convenient bow and remind everyone of both the legacy of slavery, and the disconnect the ideals of Independence Day present. I could very simply highlight the ridiculousness of celebrating the “founding of a nation” where numerous peoples and cultures already existed.

But that would be too easy.

I grew up surrounded by “Americana”. I grew up loving my nation.

I’m just not sure what “my nation” means anymore.

I’m not sure if, by celebrating the Fourth of July, I am somehow insulting the legacy of my forefathers, or in actuality rejoicing in the truth of an ideal. By eating BBQ and watching fireworks am I actively insulting Native Americans or merely participating in my culture. And, for that matter, what is my culture?

As a Black male in my thirties my view of patriotism has morphed drastically. Does this happen to every adult? Probably. There is an inevitable disillusionment as we grow older, our doe eyed idealism falling victim to harsh reality. But my shift was different. Mine seemed as a cataclysmic crash. It didn’t happen when my family encountered racism upon moving into the suburbs (our new construction home vandalized with “Niggers Get Out”). Nor did it occur when my Black peers chastised me for being “too White” (oreo cookies thrown at the back of my head).

Mine are experiences steeped in both the nuances of microaggression and the blatancy of overt violence. I was once the individual more inclined to trust our systems of government — and still, I lose faith.

In these moments I think of my Grandfather, John Sloan Sr. — a Purple Heart Tuskegee Airman.

“We volunteered” he said, “because we thought that if we proved ourselves…there would be no way they could deny us our rights when we came home. You know what? We were wrong.”

He could have left it at that, allowed his fifteen-year-old grandson to carry a diminished idea of the nation he had fought to defend. But that wasn’t my grandfather.

“America,” he continued “isn’t the land, it’s an idea. It’s a glorious experiment that seeks to prove one truth: Everyone has rights, and Everyone is equal.”

I’m probably finessing this retelling a bit, the romanticized remembrance of a boy and his hero, but the essence remains true.

Now, perhaps this seems too trite a conclusion, too assimilated an expression. But let me be clear: I carry with me the pain of my ancestors, and the contradiction of my citizenship; the pride of my Fathers and resilience of my Mothers; the strength of my nation and the power of its freedoms.

Perhaps my America is different from yours. I’m sure it is. Perhaps your America is decidedly more glorious, and you only want to make it “Great” again. Perhaps I went too far, or maybe not far enough. But for now, when I celebrate a national holiday, I will fight to rejoice in the journey that is the idea, even while bearing with the wounds that its implementation have sought to create.

Whether or not I will succeed is unclear. But I at least owe my grandfather the courage to try.