It’s time to Break It Down!
Today’s post is a revised reprint of a blog I originally published July 9, 2008, and then subsequently in the July 4, 2012, and July 5, 2017 Editions of “Break It Down!” Since today is literally the 4th of July, this redux version is timely. I hope you are having a wonderful Independence Day, 2018, and that if you get around to reading it, that you will enjoy this week’s blog.
So as I approached this Fourth of July, as always, I did so with complicated panoply of thoughts, a few of which I will share here. Our great country, and yes, by many measures it is great, strives to be all it can be, at home and abroad. It’s appropriate to note we have been successful on many fronts. On others, we still have work to do. It’s fair to embrace our successes, and necessary to accept our challenges. Doing both is the only way we can reach our true potential.
As African Americans, we often find ourselves pulled in divergent directions over how to address this day; perhaps everyday. A hundred fifteen years ago, W.E.B. Du Bois framed it thusly in “The Souls of Black Folk:”
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, –an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
I endorse Dr. Du Bois’ views on the subject.
But lest anyone rush to judge Du Bois, he is not alone; he is not even the first to cast a disparaging eye at the relationship between African Americans and the Fourth of July. On July 5, 1852, fifty-one years earlier, Frederick Douglass gave a speech at Corinth Hall, in Rochester, NY, his home. In a passage of that speech, Douglass said:
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? 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. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
Suffice it to say neither Douglass, nor Du Bois was sold on the notion of the Fourth of July as a pure as the driven snow family friendly holiday. But that is not the sole point of this post.
No, history has given us the gift of some intriguing coincidences, as well as some compelling ironies. In observing both, there are times when, even though I hold him/her in great awe, and with the highest regard, I am convinced God is, if not a confirmed jokester, at the very least, the owner of a genuinely robust sense of humor.
During a number of past holidays, I have addressed ad nauseam, the “principle of incompatibility” that divides holidays from structured endeavors such as reading, studying, and heaven forbid, working. To that end I usually try to ratchet it down a notch or two, or several, during holidays. The fact that today is July 4th, America’s official Independence Day, makes that messaging exceedingly apropos.
Looking back at Independence Days past, 1826 probably held one of the more noteworthy coincidences. July 4th, 1826, marked not only the 50th Anniversary of American Independence, but was also the day two of our nation’s Founding Fathers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, died. Yes, they died the same day in the same year. Such an occurrence today would almost certainly serve as a catalyst for rumors of a death pact.
Adams and Jefferson shared more than joint status as two of the fifty-six co-signers of the Declaration of Independence; they also went on to become the 2nd and 3rd Presidents of the United States, respectively. It is reported that Adams’ last words were, “Jefferson still survives.” However, unbeknownst to Adams, Jefferson had died earlier that day.
Adams and Jefferson had quite a concurrent history. Adams was the first to serve as America’s Vice President, he was the first President to live in the executive mansion (known today as the White House), and he was also the first President to be defeated in a re-election bid…by Jefferson, who had served as his Vice President.
Thomas Jefferson went on to become President after defeating Adams, but not without a bit of what we would think of today, as drama. Aaron Burr tied Jefferson with 73 electoral votes. As a result, the election was sent to the House of Representatives to determine the winner. After 36 ballots (that’s right 36), Jefferson prevailed. In later developments, Burr, who served for a time as Jefferson’s Vice President, killed Alexander Hamilton, who was also a Founding Father, in a duel. Not surprisingly, Burr’s career in politics took a precipitous decline afterward, although he was never convicted of a crime for his role in the incident.
Burr’s leaving the office meant Jefferson had to secure another Vice President for his second term as President. After 203 years, P-Funk fans still tip their hat to Jefferson, as he selected George Clinton to hold the second chair. (Funk-a-teers and P-Funk Mythology devotees will know what I mean…see George Clinton, musician, and his anthem Atomic Dog, as a point of reference). I digress!
The virtually concurrent deaths of Adams and Jefferson marked an intriguing Independence Day coincidence of considerable magnitude. July 4, 2008, Independence Day again collaborated with the death of a prominent political figure, this time in what many consider a compellingly ironic twist. Former North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, popularly known as Senator No, a nickname he appeared to relish, died leaving a legacy that will be debated, by supporters and detractors for many years to come.
It is a fact that there are those who consider Helms a patriot. Others have cited his “courage” to stand against the forces of change, on issues ranging from gay rights to trade agreements, to foreign aid. Many of his most notable tirades focused on issues of civil rights and affirmative action, and funding for AIDS research. He was also a leading Senate opponent of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday, and he authored and/or approved the infamous, in North Carolina anyway (but highly effective), “white hands” commercial, aired during the first of two Senate campaign battles against former Charlotte Mayor, Harvey Gantt (1990). For that moment in time at least, Senator No drove the concept of negative campaign advertising to a new and ugly low.
The Honorable Senator No appeared to take great pride in his predictable opposition to progressive ideals, and often needled the media when he felt he had bested their desired interests. He earned the distinction of being North Carolina’s longest serving Senator. That is a noteworthy accomplishment, and cannot be diminished.
However, it must be noted that many of the tributes and editorials that began streaming forth Friday, July 4, 2008, sanitized the bigotry and raw mean-spiritedness that marked so many of Helms’ political encounters; especially his triumphs. His was a divisive, zero-sum brand of politics that often targeted the historically disenfranchised for more abuse, insult, and exclusion. In that light, it is impossible to deny the essence of irony in the events of Independence Day, 2008. He was a bona fide Tea Party hero, before his time. One can almost envision the spirit of King, after having scaled the mountaintop, uttering that famous three-word phrase…Free at Last!
In my solitary reference to him during this post, I cannot wind down this blog without stating the obvious. Helms and some of his tactics were eerily reminiscent of some of those employed by a certain contemporary politician who holds one of the most powerful positions in the world, and whose 5-letter name rhymes with grump. In an effort to embrace the liberating theme of Independence Day, I opted not to promote “name that rhymes with grump” fatigue, by making this post about him. Indeed, it’s “Independence Day: Free at Last Redux!”
I’m done; holla back!
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