Friday, July 14, 2017

Woke on The Fourth of July

My Dad was woke back before we knew that would be the thing to be...because when we were growing up, his woke-ness was uncool. It was the 80s and as a proud, yet jaded veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, he restricted us from participating in anything he deemed to be counter-revolutionary. So we didn't watch the Dukes of Hazzard or any classic cartoons with racial caricatures (at least, not when he was around). He always belonged to a black bank. Our African names, black dolls, and annual observance of African Liberation/Malcolm X Day were nods to his embrace of pan-Africanism before everyone else caught on in the 90s. And my Dad hates Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, Elvis Pressley, and Gone With the Wind.

Of course, like most people, his woke-ness could be inconsistent whenever he hit the snooze button. We couldn't play "Cowboys and Indians" although we were avid Washington football fans (even before Doug Williams). He won't celebrate Kwanzaa. For years he thought OJ was framed. And while we could happily spend the day at the beach, eat barbecue, and shoot off our little fireworks on July Fourth, it was never in celebration of America's birthday. So it made me beam with pride upon seeing how so many of my friends posted Frederick Douglass's powerful speech, "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro" last week since Daddy had made me read it years ago as part of his stance against celebrating American Independence.

For the record, my take on July Fourth falls somewhere between my Dad's outright hostility and other folks' unbounded enthusiasm. Which means I have no opposition to celebrating the day for what it commemorates, but I reserve the right to remind folks that the struggle for freedom continues. So no, you probably will not catch me wearing my patriotism on my ass like a cheap pair of American flag leggings (made in China). However, I am happy to wave a few sparklers (also made in China) while I recite the words to Langston Hughes' "I, Too" or Claude McKay's "America" or Maya Angelou's "These Yet to be United States". Or even better, as the Toddlersaurus, my Niece, and I belt out our favorite songs from the musical Hamilton.

Just as my Dad and others were disillusioned by the post-Civil Rights era backlash, I can appreciate how disheartening it is to confront the realities of this post-Obama era. From that race-baiting NRA video to the retreat by the Justice Department from protecting the rights of citizens to outright religious intolerance and hostility, it is easy to understand why folks have lost faith. Unfortunately, hypocrisy is as American as pumpkin pie--literally, ever since those eloquent words of equality and liberty were penned by a slaveowner whose "slave mistress" was his wife's half sister.

Despite the wide gulf between our ideals and reality, we too can celebrate America. We can believe in the hope expressed by both the Declaration of Independence and the Frederick Douglass speech because this is our country too. If we can celebrate both men for their greatness while acknowledging their very human weaknesses (Douglass' extracurricular activities), then we must learn to reconcile our disappointments with American shortcomings to our pride in American progress.

Since I mentioned it earlier, it is the genius of Hamilton that reminded me how we are all inheritors of the American legacy. Only in America could a Puerto Rican rapper write a Tony Award-winning musical on the life of an undocumented Caribbean immigrant who ascends from obscurity to notoriety by aligning with a black/brown George Washington. American History is our story too, so marginalizing or othering us doesn't negate that fact.

And in case you might be wondering, I can celebrate America and stay woke. In the words of the prophet known as James Baldwin, "I love America more than any country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."

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