Like other birthday parties, the Fourth of July weekend is often about the decorations of the celebration.
Oh, say, can you see the Uncle Sam lawn ornament on the front porch? The paper plates and napkins decorated with disposable Stars and Stripes? The red-and-white glow necklaces and bracelets bought for the kids?
This year, however, the menu could include hot dogs, apple pie and a reevaluation of what patriotism means in 2020.
In a year of pandemic and protest, it’s time to use this holiday to ask what sort of nation we want to be – and what we’re really saying with the flags, statues and anthems that are being rethought and, in some cases, removed.
“I think a lot of people are seeing a level of thoughtfulness about what are we actually doing under these symbols, under these rituals and celebrations, under these memories we think about at the Fourth of July, but have never really interrogated,” said Angela Tate, a public historian at Northwestern University who taught a course recently
on the meaning of monuments.
Confederate statues have been toppled and public buildings named for slave owners have been renamed. But changing symbols alone doesn’t address what activists are demanding in terms of reforming injustices in policing, economics, the legal system, health care and so on, said Alvita Akiboh, assistant professor of history at the University of Michigan.
And yet symbols can spotlight the divide that exists between America’s reality and ideals. Just look at the contrast between the Trump administration’s decision to stall plans to put Harriet Tubman’s face on the $20 bill and the Black Lives Matter street paintings that have become new landmarks, including Detroit’s new “Power to the People” mural on Woodward Avenue.
You could put Black faces on every denomination of money and it wouldn’t end racism, notes Akiboh, and still “all of these things that fade into the background of our everyday lives send a very powerful, constant message about what this country values and how this country sees itself.”
More: On July 4th, remember the American flag belongs to us all
For some, a complex view of July 4 is an old story. But for others, stopping to think about the holiday and the context of some of its trimmings
may be a completely new experience.
According to Kidada Williams, associate professor of history at Wayne State University, African Americans have a history of revering the Declaration of Independence, the document that inspired the day of “pomp and parade” that its signer John Adams predicted back in 1776. With its epic statement that “all men are created equal,” the declaration represents “the guarantee all Americans are supposed to enjoy,” said Williams.
But living up to that promise has been the challenge from the start.
Many white Americans may not be familiar with the famous speech given by abolitionist icon Frederick Douglass on July 5,1852, before a largely white audience. “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” asked Douglass, who was born into slavery. “I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”
Douglass was ahead of a democracy that took another decade for the Emancipation Proclamation to arrive. On Friday, National Public Radio posted a video of five of his descendants delivering excerpts of speech, one of the great orations by an American leader.
Patriotism is not just about going through the motions of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or joining in a “USA, USA” chant. You can
criticize a country for not doing its best only when you actually have faith in its essential goodness.
As social justice activist the Rev. William Barber II said on TBS’ “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” this week, “When people are protesting and crying out and mourning in the street, what they’re literally saying is we still love this country enough to believe change is possible.”
Changes made to patriotic symbols – the state of Mississippi just voted to retire its longtime flag with the Confederate emblem – are part of an ongoing process. But they also can b…