WHEN YOU LIVE in Philadelphia, you can’t help but notice Independence Day.
American history is kind of everywhere you look around here. The Welcome America! celebration brings together all sorts of movies, exhibits, and concerts featuring a number of bands, including one of my favorites, The Roots.
Every year the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition sets up shop a block away from the Liberty Bell and pours libations to commemorate those for whom July 4, 1776 was just another day at the office. The office was a plantation. They were slaves.
Patriotism is in the air. It is America’s birthday, after all. You’re supposed to celebrate it. Heck, as an Army Brat you’re almost mandated to go to some sort of celebration, followed by a cookout and a fireworks display on the Fourth.
But every year the Avenging The Ancestors Coalition, the group that fought for The President’s House, a memorial to the slaves that lived in George Washington’s house in Philadelphia, sets up shop a block away from the Liberty Bell. They pour libations to commemorate the people for whom July 4, 1776 was just another day at the office.
The office was a plantation.
They were slaves.
Independence Day and people of color
From the moment that we stepped on these shores, or in the case of Native Americans, when whites stepped on these shores, people of color have had a complicated relationship with America and at no other time is this more evident than on the Fourth of July.
Sure we throw cookouts, go to fireworks displays, and even hang out on the Parkway, but because of the relationship we have with America a lot of the time, we do it mostly because it’s fun.
Don’t get me wrong. People of color really believe in the concept of America. According to the 2012 United States Armed Forces Demographics report, 30.3 percent of the 3.6 million members of the Military are people of color.
But sometimes for people of color, America is this really bad boyfriend that has taken your brand new car without permission, smashed it into a wall, given you no help with car payments or gas, but because you love him and he’s always apologetic, you stay.
It’s not a good feeling. In fact, if this were a battered spouse, folks would tell her to leave.
Sometimes for people of color, America is like this really bad boyfriend that has taken your brand new car without permission, smashed it into a wall, given you no help with car payments or gas, but because you love him and he’s always apologetic, you stay.
In the case of people of color, it’s the concept of what America can be that keeps them from walking out that door.
Every once in a while, America shows us what it can be. It does things like pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a law that celebrates its 50th birthday this year. It gives women the right to vote. It removes the Japanese from internment camps and affirms the human rights of migrant workers.
At times, however, America reminds people of color that we may think we’re part of the in-crowd, but really we’re not.
The best example of this I can come up with is one that we see every day: the treatment of President Barack Obama.
On the one hand, President Obama’s election is another one of those moments that people of color can point to of America living up to its code.
But when you see some of the stuff that has been unleashed by that event, it boggles the mind. From pictures of the President with his neck in a noose, to the so-called “Birther” movement, to the not-so-veiled racism of some of the folks in Congress and especially the Tea Party, it reminds people of color that no matter how much education you have, or how much you accomplish, you’re still not “quite” American.
Yet, President Obama as our nation’s Commander-In-Chief will be out there today doing all of the stuff that all of our nation’s Presidents have done to celebrate the Fourth of July.
And his complicated relationship with the country that made his story possible will be on full display.
Kind of like the rest of us.
Happy Independence Day…
Photo © 2014 by Canstock Photo
Click here to read Solomon Jones’s column: “Boehner lawsuit threat is latest Obama insult.”
Denise Clay is a journalist and adjunct professor. She is active in the National Association of Black Journalists and the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists.