Traveling America's Road Again: Some thoughts on the Fourth of July

I was born and raised in Concord, Massachusetts. Like residents of many small towns across the USA, Concordians like to think of our town as "America's Hometown”. Concord was incorporated in 1635. Along with neighboring Lexington, it was the site of the first battles of the Revolutionary War on April 19, 1775.

 

Concord was the home of numerous notable residents. As a child, I waited for the school bus in the front yard of Louisa May Alcott. During tourist season my friend, Ricky and I set up a lemonade stand at the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson. On summer nights after dark, my high school friends and I swam illegally in Thoreau's Walden Pond. (Our act of civil disobedience!) No matter where I have been on the 4th of July since then, my mind goes back to that particular American hometown. I remember Concord not only as my "old stomping ground" but as a place where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness thrived.

 

On this 4th of July my holiday thoughts are both challenged and deepened having just read Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God by Kelly Brown Douglas. A professor, minister, and mother of a black son, Douglas provides an astute, passionate and honest assessment of American ideals, religious beliefs and political practices that have converged to endorse and even bless the violent enforcement of white privilege. 

 

Among the most challenging aspects of Brown's work for me is her exploration of the concept, American Exceptionalism. In the first chapter of her book she highlights how this exceptionalism has deep roots in Anglo-Saxon mythology. Brown identifies the beginnings of this myth with the first century Roman historian, Tacitus. His writing, Germania, extolled the virtues of Germanic tribes. This "race" was characterized as the pinnacle of morality, bravery and love for freedom. They were superior in all ways, including in their governance. But they were also described by Tacitus as a "distinct unmixed race like none but themselves" and, "free from all taint of intermarriage."

 

Brown traces how this ancient myth was adopted by white Englishmen and arrived in North America with the white colonists. The Anglo-Saxon myth played a role in forming American democracy but with its emphasis on pure race, has tragically played a role in the subjugation and elimination of those who were not seen as members of the "unmixed race."  Brown's honest examination of Anglo-Saxon mythology, migrating as it has from Germanic tribes to England and North America, declares a truth, hardly "self-evident", to me as a young citizen of Concord. The concept of American Exceptionalism was born of a belief in white supremacy. How else could Jefferson write of unalienable rights of all men while claiming black men, women and children as his property?

 

Closer to home, how else can I, one fourth of July after another, hear Jefferson's words of declaration put to music, get goosebumps but give no more than a private and timid thought to the multitude of brown and black Americans who remain subjected to what Jim Wallis characterizes as "the violent enforcement of white privilege" —a direct descendant of the Anglo-Saxon myth of superiority? 

 

For much of my life, I tended to think of racism as a germ that somewhere along the way infected America and sickened America's original nature. Holding to such a mindset subtly suggests that all we needed to do to cure our racial illness is get back to America's glorious origins. But the truth is that America's racism is not an infectious disease, it is congenital—from birth.

 

Racism is in America's DNA, a helix of beliefs that contain the ancient codes of the Anglo-Saxon myth of superiority, manifest destiny and an inherited belief among whites that the black body is always guilty of something. Racism condones what Kelly Brown Douglas describes as America's "stand your ground culture", a mindset (more than a policy) that fosters in whites a devotion to their life, liberty and the pursuit of Trayvon, Jordan, Jonathan, Renisha, Michael and so many others.              

 

On this 4th of July, I choose to celebrate the message of James Baldwin, who wrote: "Go back to where you started, as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it." To take Baldwin's advice is an honorable thing to do on this July 4th. Go back as far as we can—to Concord, to Plymouth, to Jamestown, to Philadelphia, to whatever American hometown you come from and whatever original American beliefs to which you adhere.

 

Be honest. Have the courage to see that even America's mythical Shining City on a Hill is a gated community, always was and still is, and this gated community of freedom isn’t accessible to many until we tell the whole truth of America. The truth of America from before its birth to the present day.

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Rev. Eliot N. Howard is a native of Massachusetts and the Senior Pastor of Linden Hills United Church of Christ in Minneapolis. You can follow him on Instagram @PastorEliot930 and on Twitter @pastoreliot2