Friday, July 4, 2008

Freedom Is Always Unfinished Business: Meditations on the Fourth

The Fourth for us? It will be some kind of cookout at Philip and Penny’s.

Not a barbecue. I have been horrified (and culture-shocked) in the past to be invited to barbecues in places like Toronto or Boston, and to find that they were plain old cookouts. Barbecue has a very specific meaning, for us in the South: meat (usually pork, unless you’re a Texan, and if so, you’re mostly outside the South) tortured by low, smoky heat while basted with some savory sauce, and then served with more of that sauce to season it.

It is not a hamburger cooked over charcoal on an outdoor grill. That’s not barbecue even if you douse it with barbecue sauce. And don’t get me started on the chili sauce I encountered in my student years in Canada—a gloppy, cloyingly sweet concoction of peppers and onions and spice without an ounce of heat to it. One of those desserts people to the northward like to put on their meat and salads, rather than to save for the dessert table.

So. We’ll probably have something grilled. I’ve made a pot of Brunswick stew so large I’m afraid to try to transport it to the party, for fear it’ll slop over in the car. Penny is going to take fresh peaches she picked last weekend and turn them into a cobbler. Philip hopes to make ice cream, but fears he’s sold or given away his ice cream maker. Our old wooden family one long since disappeared in one or other of my moves. My aunt is between baking cakes and pies for her church (“Those Baptists eat more than anyone I’ve ever seen,” she told me yesterday) and for an AARP gathering yesterday. So she is baked out, and will supply some sausages for the grill.

We’ll eat too much, want to nap afterwards but be unable to do so for manners’ sake, and then will do it all over again, Steve and I, at an evening party at our friends’ Diane and Mary’s.

And I wonder if, along the way, any of us will give any thought at all to the occasion? We weren’t raised in a world in which the Fourth was thought about much—Philip and I weren’t, that is. Penny was born in Faulkner County north of Little Rock, and has stronger patriotic roots than we do.

For us, the Fourth was normally an opportunity to go to what we called the Club (that would be the ridiculously chi-chi way of denoting the Country Club, in our little town) for barbecued chicken, drinks (for the adults; we got lemonade with maraschino cherry juice added), and fireworks. All of which we ate and watched sitting on greens of the golf course.

A nice evening, but hardly a fervent patriotic affair. Anything South-toned, by contrast, immediately captured our imagination, in the more Deep-South areas of the state, including the Louisiana-border area in which we lived. I remember going in sixth grade with a school choir group to sing patriotic songs to the DAR chapter in Pine Bluff.

The Dames sat through the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I believe they did so through the “Star-Spangled Banner.” But they got up solemnly, en masse, when we sang “Dixie.” I had an aunt who lived in Pine Bluff who considered it her patriotic duty to 1) read Gone with the Wind at least once a year, and 2) go downtown to the theater to see it when it was screened at least once a year in Pine Bluff.

That was the world in which I grew up. The Revolution was a distant memory. The Civil War was yesterday. We still lived its thrills and woes. We still lamented its setback. When we watched GWTW, those were our boys lying dead and wounded all over Atlanta.

And so this says a lot about our Southern appropriation of the glorious Fourth and all its themes. At some level, we were aware that our own Revolutionary ancestors—I’ve counted some thirty in my own lineage, all living in Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina during the Revolution—were more concerned about the taxes on their tobacco crops and their need to settle new land (and plantations with slaves) beyond the Appalachian mountain chain.

This was what motivated most of them to rebel, my ancestors. They coveted land owned by the native peoples. They wanted to leave behind gullied and over-cropped fields in the Carolinas and Virginia for the lush virgin lands of Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama.

They wanted to extend the plantation system westward. They knew full well that it was slaves who would “open” that fertile new land—who would chop down the trees, build levees to stop flooding in lowlands, hoe out weeds, build cabins for themselves and houses for the master, plow and plant and bring wealth to the plantation owner. Their lust for new land was inherently linked to the system of slavery.

So freedom? Well, maybe at some level, we knew better than to pretend that the Revolution was all about freedom. It was about our freedom. Yes. It was decidedly not about the freedom of the slaves who would do the back-breaking labor of opening new plantations. Nor was it about the freedom of the native peoples whose ownership of their lands in states like Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi would simply be ignored when we found ways to make those lands our own.

Do I value the sacrifices my ancestors made in the Revolution? Of course I do. I remember that among those thirty or so soldiers were two who gave their lives, Sergeant Robert Leonard and Captain Samuel Kerr.

But in remembering, I also remember with clear eyes. I have to do so, if I am not to be gulled into the false pieties that make our history all about the march of freedom from coast to coast. It was not such a march, anywhere in the nation.

And to the extent that it was a march worth remembering, it was a march of more than those white men who are usually lionized when we recall the Revolution. Women, their wives, held the fort while those men went to war. Women birthed babies, spun, sewed, washed, cleaned, gardened, cooked, doctored, and tried to keep things going when men were warring.

Women have done this throughout history. And as women did that, people held against their will in bondage also played a vital role in building the nation. As did each generation of immigrants who appropriated American ideals while struggling against the predictable insularity of previous generations of immigrants towards the latest group.* Any history of freedom in the United States is a lie, unless it includes all those who have built our institutions and struggled to make the history of freedom more than a deceitful story we tell ourselves and each other on the Fourth.

The history of freedom has been an up-down, started-aborted history. Freedom has been built anywhere in our land—to the extent that it exists at all anywhere in the land—only to the extent that some of those on the bottom were willing to struggle to make the ideals proclaimed by those at the top a reality for all.

I do not doubt that my Revolutionary male ancestors included a proportion of people genuinely moved by the thought of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. I know that some of my ancestors who gave Revolutionary service included people who were willing to risk their lives to build a world in which one church, an established church, did not control the state. Not in America. They would be as horrified today as my grandparents were, in the last century, to see some Americans—and many Southerners—declaring that the wall separating church and state is a fiction.

No, I don’t deny that, in the complex and very mixed motives that led my own ancestors to revolution (and, let’s be honest, the motives were just as complex and mixed everywhere in the colonies), there were some noble motives, including a strong resolve to challenge the attempt of any church to dominate the political sector. What I am arguing is that the ideals many of our Revolutionary ancestors proclaimed were flawed—flawed in their practice and extension rather than in their conception.

They were flawed because they were ideals that held only for those crafting them. Those “at the bottom”: they were for the most part outside the scope of the crafters, of the men writing these documents, signing them, forming the new post-Revolutionary government.

This is why Bayard Rustin says that for America, freedom is always unfinished business. Democracy—real participatory democracy—is an always unfinished task. Democracy grows as we recognize the full humanity and full human rights of each disenfranchised group, and extend to that group the power and privilege we expect for ourselves with such breathtaking ease.

That’s the dream I’ll be mulling over today as I down my hamburger and Brunswick stew. The official (and officially mandated?) pieties of the day, with its huge flags flapping in the wind? No, those leave me cold, as all officially mandated pieties do.

I’d rather try to make the dream real. I’d rather see a bit more participatory democracy grow in my society than wear a flag pin in my lapel. The former might truly honor those who died in the Revolution. The latter debases all they struggled or died for, insofar as they were moved by democratic ideals.

*As the saying goes, "I never had so much trouble with immigrants until my people came to this country."

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