4 July 2020
A conservative, a centrist and a liberal American walk into a bar. The bartender says, “We don’t serve your kind here.” The angry Americans say, “You don’t think we should be seen together? You expect us to start a fight? You think this country is so frayed and lost that there is no hope for a civil dialogue among countrymen?” The bartender says, “Ah, no” and points to a sign on the wall that says, “Due to Covid19, no mask, no service.”
My husband sits on a rocking chair listening to a New York Times program. It is called “The Argument Podcast”. He listens intently to a conservative, a centrist and a liberal in respectful dialogue. One thing they discuss is the complexity of bringing down statues. They agree generally that removing monuments to the confederacy is okay, but some stop short at approving removing statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, while agreeing to the importance of acknowledging their past in slavery.
In 1852, escaped slave turned abolitionist, Frederick Douglass asked, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” Black America may find it hard to celebrate a nation full of injustice and inequality that persists today. When I check Facebook for opposing views they often come out as angry blasts from a rifle. You can smell the fear of change from one side and hear the anger at injustice on the other side. There are those safely ensconced in the comfy leather cushions of their chair fearful of yielding a “seat at the table” to voices demanding to be heard.
Robin Diangelo starts her book, “White Fragility” saying that all progress in civil rights in the USA comes through “identity politics.” The US was founded on the principle that all men are created equal but has not lived up to that. After breaking away from the control of England, the US stole land and destroyed the lives of indigenous people and kidnapped and enslaved African citizens. The identity of those in power have remained mostly white, male, middle and upper middle class, and able-bodied.
Yesterday, Lin Manuel Miranda released “Hamilton” for free for all to see. I sat fascinated and entertained, as the musical explored the journey of the forming of our nation through war and words and the complex lives of the founders. There is a song in Hamilton about wanting, “a seat at the table”.
Diangelo says that the decisions made at those tables affect the lives of those not at the tables, not necessarily from willful intent, but through homogeneity. We are alike, our lives are similar, we think alike, so we don’t really know how life is different for someone different than us. Therefore, our laws may turn out exclusionary, even without our intent. We can’t remove barriers that we do not see. Enter the voices of the dispossessed, those without a seat at the table. They need to hold signs and shout and knock on the door, squeeze through cleverly, or burst through in a commanding way. All progress in civil rights has come from identity politics.
I sometimes cringe at old movies or tv shows that were “of the time” but now seem insensitive, like treating blacks as inferior or treating women in a misogynistic way. Changes born of identity politics include Women’s Suffrage, The Americans with Disabilities Act, Title 9, and federal recognition of Same-Sex Marriage. For these changes to come about, the groups had to be named. Men needed to allow women to vote because only men sat at the table. Well, white men allowed white women. That was in 1920. It took until the 1960’s, through the Voting Rights Act, for all women to be allowed to vote. We have to name who has access and who does not in order to see with new eyes where injustice lies. This is one reason why touting, “Black Lives Matter” highlights injustice that needs to be remedied.
There are victories to celebrate this Fourth of July. One example is the removal of monuments like the Kentucky statue of Jefferson Davis, slave owner and President of the Confederate States. In Mississippi the state flag that glorified slavery has been taken down.
One thing we have been given by the pandemic, besides mandatory masks, is more time to reflect. I like to think that time to reflect allows some of us to make room for others at the table. Tonight, you may look up and see lights spray the sky in pops of color and then sputter and fade. Like every firework, we each want a chance to light the sky. All humanity shares this sky and this hope. We celebrate a day that commemorates white men freeing themselves from tyranny. Today may we also celebrate our progress thus far in extending that flag of freedom to all.