One of my most vivid childhood church memories happened on a once-a-decade-or-so Sunday that doubled as Independence Day. It was religious business as usual at Calvary Assembly of God in Kissimmee, Florida, until the stoic woman who played piano during song service approached the pulpit.
She began to sing a song I'd never heard before and was sure she'd made up on the spot called "I'm Proud to Be an American." I can't say for certain, but I think she even may have been wearing a blouse that was patterned like the American flag. It was the strangest display of patriotism I'd ever seen.
My first thought: I never knew she could sing. My second: What the hell is she singing?...
This is church, isn't she supposed to be singing about God? What does America have to do with anything here? And what about the members of the congregation who are not American?
I looked around at all of the white faces around me. Wrong question. She was preaching to the choir. The room couldn't have been more American. It was the right song, wrong occasion. Wouldn't Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A.," which was probably a hit around the time, have been more on-topic?
I still probably wouldn't have sung along, though. It had nothing to do with separation of Church and State, or the idea that religion serves as the No. 1 ammunition for homophobes, like my Aunt Juliet. I was 10 or 11, way too young to be concerned with that yet.
The truth is, I've just never been into patriotic songs. I don't care for "The Star-Spangled Banner," "America the Beautiful" or "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Nothing she possibly could have sung would have impressed me as much as a kick-ass original take on "Amazing Grace"...which by the way, I'm still waiting for.
Furthermore, Independence Day just wasn't my thing. Aside from getting the day off from school/work, I've never been into it. I don't even like fireworks.
Now that I'm on my 10th July 4th living outside of the U.S., Independence Days matters even less because there's no reprieve from anything for me. It's just like any other day here in Australia.
But deep inside my heart, it's actually a little worse than any other day, not for what it represents but for what it doesn't. For my fellow black Americans and me, Independence Day means absolutely nothing. On July 4, 1776, our ancestors were shackled and enslaved, forced against their will to serve their white masters. I love my country as much as anyone, but is that cause for celebration?
I've recently been watching a number of historical documentaries, with a focus on our Founding Fathers (George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, etc.) One of the most alarming discoveries I've made is how many of them owned black slaves. Yes, even the Father of the Country himself, George Washington, "Master" to many.
Jefferson, our third U.S. President, even wrote an entire treatise on why blacks are inferior to whites. Was this his way of convincing himself that it was OK to hang them several rungs below pets, treat them as much less than humans (unless he was taking them to bed!)?
Though not all of the Founding Fathers so publicly supported slavery or even owned black Americans, only one -- Benjamin Franklin -- ever publicly supported the abolitionist movement. And like 34th U.S. President Harry Truman a century and a half later, he had his ah-ha moment regarding black Americans rather late in life.
So despite the fact that at this moment, I'm prouder to be an American than I have been in years (or maybe ever, thanks to SCOTUS), I won't be celebrating Independence Day today. July 4 will be just like any other day, aside from offering another occasion for me to get atop my soapbox.
I'm glad I'll be spending it in the Blue Mountains of Australia, where I expect there will be no fireworks or TV coverage. Considering my current heightened state of awareness, I'm not sure I could stomach watching everyone celebrate our Founding Hypocrites who preached freedom and equality from England while denying that very thing to the people who would go on to contribute so much to American culture.
I have nothing against white Americans celebrating Independence Day, but it's their Independence Day, not mine. Wake me up when President's Day rolls around again. I'd like to raise a glass to Abraham Lincoln. Unlike most of our Founding Fathers, when he spoke about freedom and equality for all men, he actually meant it.