Downing A Fifth on The Fifth of July

Looking back on what the Fourth really means afterwards…

Beginnings of a cookout off of Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn (Photo credit: author)

“To accept one’s past — one’s history — is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.”
- James Baldwin

So. It’s the fifth of July. Notable only in certain cases where you’re trying to
recollect what went down the night before, at home if you’re lucky or sitting
at your desk. If you didn’t go away on vacation, it’s one of those two scenarios. One of the more striking memories from the morning after the Fourth of July would be the random fifth bottles that could be found left against curbs and on sidewalks, all empty. Some scorched after their duties as improvised launch stations for bottle rockets. Some shattered into bits. Mostly E&J or Hennessy, all left outside to greet the morning like seashells poking their head out of the sands on a beach somewhere.

The Fourth of July, to a number of people I know near and far, is pretty much boiled down to “you grillin’?” or some other party. Or going to check out an outdoor fireworks display. (Side note: attempting to go catch those televised concerts is tantamount to Caine from Kung Fu on his quest, especially since you’ve got a spiffy new waterfront park space in Long Island City.) One of two folks may hit Old Navy to snag a flag t-shirt and call it a day. Nah, the Fourth is a holiday. But not how some think it is.

Before the passionate & incessant flag-wavers start yelling, let me make a few things clear. Patriotism around the way isn’t absent, not by any means. Not when you’ve got a slew of Black and Latinx folks who still have at least one family member in any of the armed forces, or who have served. Not when you have a mass of people who are highly appreciative of all the opportunities they have gotten to access in this country coming from other nations like Jamaica, Trinidad, Haiti, Ghana and others. And those are just the countries represented on my block. No, these are people who are grateful for the United States. But these are also people who are cognizant of the full unabridged accounting of the nation’s history. Same as the brothers and sisters in any neighborhood across the country who can trace roots back to the Carolinas, Alabama and other states in the South. All while working and living in a country that by a wide margin still has the capability to downplay and to delete the proof of certain misdeeds that the country is built on. For example? Take a look at the latest discovery made at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home. In that accounting, the reporting dances around laying bare the whole truth about Sally Hemings. Referring to her as an “enslaved woman” is part of it. But records have shown that she was 14 years old when she apparently was taken advantage of by Jefferson to bear six children ultimately. Yeah, to sum up — raped. Because that was one element of slavery in the United States. I say dancing around it because to make it plain is something that is still a mighty struggle for some media outlets and the system they serve. And it is what lies at the core of the kind of patriotism being trotted out every time the Fourth rolls around. Being asked for a love, a blind trust when you are truly supposed to not only see but ask more questions and see more behind the red, white and blue. It’s a dance that one sees from someone obviously drunk or on the way there, grabbing at someone, anyone to join in.

See, folks that I know, know that the patriotism that gets put forth on the Fourth is kind of like a looking glass. For those of color in this country, it is a
celebration. But it is a celebration of survival. Of moving forward despite the
hurdles. It’s a celebration of the young advancing in life, when you can get those who are graduating together to let them revel in that joy of making it. It’s a celebration of the returned, when those who’ve come home from wherever get to feel the electricity of just being able to relax if only for a moment. It’s a celebration of those no longer with us, where some visit 
cemeteries or make a trip as they do here to the beach in Coney Island to 
pay homage to the ancestors brought here through the Middle Passage and
those lost along the way. It’s a time for a respite from the almost daily horror wrought upon marginalized communities, via police brutality or the brutality of other methods. It’s a time still tinged with lessons from the past, evidenced by anyone posting the famed speech by the great Frederick Douglass, “What To The Slave is 4th of July?”

When all of the incessant home-grown munitions displays wear off in the 
wee hours of the morning, when the sun breaks over the clouds the day after, these feelings still remain. These different perspectives on what patriotism is. Hell, in this day and age where we have a reality-show president, it matters more than ever, these questions. Because you have a slew of overly “patriotic” lemmings that are demanding that you don’t ask questions. That you don’t look behind the bombastic displays. That you call this “the land of the free and the home of the brave” but want to exclude multitudes of people based on skin color, faith and sexual and gender identities and handicaps. All while clinging to any corporate outpourings of patriotism that give you 40 percent of your purchase price or can be shipped to you free of charge by midnight. That’s when it becomes ugly. That’s when slurs, taunting, racial trolling, hate crimes of all kinds occur. That’s when patriotism for those made sick by a supposed purity becomes nothing but excrement to smear those who believe in the good that this country’s supposed to stand for. That’s why that kind of showy patriotism gets the side-eye.

Patriotism, to me, means that you have a love for where you’re from. But it
means that you have to critique elements of it, from past to present. It means acknowledging the stumbles as well as the grand successful leaps. It means honoring the sacrifices of all in full. From veterans in the military to those serving in different ways from hospitals to soup kitchens. Honoring all thosefrom all walks of life who call themselves American. Patriotism, to me and others like me, is not a blind exercise. And there may be those upset that I draw that line. But I do. I have to, to be American and to love this country. It means I gotta keep it real about this country in all respects.

These feelings are what I think prompts this one cat who I’ve seen up on the 
main drag in my area, Linden Boulevard to down a fifth the day after the 
Fourth of July in the past few years. He’ll sit quietly by himself, adjacent to a 24-hour bodega. A coffee cup with the lid up at his feet. The brown paper bag tucked by his waist in a discreet manner until his eyes dart left and right, and then it rises like the beginning arc of a Kobe jumper to his lips. He sips. Exhales. Brings the bottle back down. All until it’s finished, then he goes off on his way. The coffee cup is gone. But the fifth bottle remains, empty.

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