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Pots & Pans: America is what WE make of it

Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes were critical of U.S., but embraced potential to change

Our country enjoys two great secular holidays: Independence Day and Thanksgiving. At Thanksgiving, many of us seek to put on a pageant worthy of a Norman Rockwell illustration of an idyllic America: an occasion defined by family, food and football. Thanksgiving also marks the beginning of the fall and winter giving season, a time when we open our eyes, hearts and wallets in response to the struggles of others.

But on Independence Day, our celebrations vary much more. Some will be content to wave the flag to celebrate our country’s greatness. Others will clench their fists, challenging their nation to right enduring wrongs. And still more will wrap their eager fingers around a beer, a burger or a hot dog.

The different ways we mark Independence Day reflect the different ways we see our nation and ourselves.

In a speech delivered in 1852, black abolitionist Frederick Douglass asked what slaves should make of Independence Day. Decades later, poet Langston Hughes wrote that the majestic America so many celebrated never really was for many, including the “poor white, fooled and pushed apart.”

Douglass in his speech and Hughes in his poem, Let America Be America Again, questioned the gulf between the poetry and promise of the Declaration of Independence and the lives many Americans led.

And yet, Hughes also wrote I, Too, sing America. And decades after Hughes, Latino poet Francisco Alarcón would remind us in Letter to America that “we are the insides of your body. Our faces reflect your future.”

Both poems show how different groups have made the same plea and petition: that America embrace them as citizens and human beings. Those petitions have occurred in the courts, in the streets and sometimes on foreign battlefields. Some of our most dedicated troops have come from the ranks of the dispossessed: slaves and the descendants of slaves, the children of interned Japanese families, the children of the white ethnic slums, the children of the barrios, the children of the Indian reservations, and, of course, gay men and lesbians.

As Douglass told his audience in the 1850s, the nation has a grand past. It has a brutal and bloody past, too. But in celebrating the glories of America’s past, Douglass said, we can’t forget our responsibility for the nation’s present and future: that we take hold of the baton, run our leg of the marathon, from where we are to where we want our country to be, just as everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Muhammad Ali to Cesar Chavez have done.

Eleven years before the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed some slaves, Douglass told his audience that he would proceed with hope. It’s the American Optimism that powered the liberation movements. It’s the American Optimism, often intertwined with faith, that made a way out of no way. And it’s the American Optimism that gives voice to our many anthems, including The Star-Spangled Banner, a rousing companion to the rockets’ red glare of holiday fireworks. In some cases, our anthems come from unlikely places, including My Country ‘Tis of Thee, a reworking of England’s God Save The Queen.

In 1939, Marian Anderson sang the song on the Lincoln Memorial steps. She gave an outdoor concert after the Daughters of the American Revolution denied her a chance to sing at their Constitution Hall. Anderson sang with love, defiance and forgiveness. And lately, The Right to Love, a song sung by Tony Bennett and Nancy Wilson in the 1960s, has been adopted by some to support the LGBT community’s humanity, “We know that we have earned that precious right to love.”

Still, for all the holiday anthems, including the sweeping America The Beautiful, this Independence Day song comes from Woody Guthrie.

It’s a song filled with hope and the shared responsibility for our nation’s past, present and future. When I hear it, I imagine myself linked arms with Jefferson, the slave holder and aviator of freedom. I imagine myself linked arms with Malcolm X, the two-bit crook and liberation orator. And I imagine myself linked arms with all the nameless and faceless warriors for freedom, from Bunker Hill to Stonewall: “This land is your land … This land is my land ….”

A graduate of Hampton University, Jeff Rivers worked for Ebony, HBO and three daily newspapers, winning multiple awards for his columns. Jeff and his wife live in New Jersey and have two children, a son Marc and a daughter Lauren.