The most American of Holidays

There is a sadness at the heart of America. It pervades everything we are, everything we do, everything we touch. Every fifty-five years [1] or so, we all take sides in an argument we have been having since our country was founded. Like an old married couple that seem to fight about many different things, but in reality the argument is always based on that same thing, that same issue, the issue of racial inequality.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Some of our ancestors came here from Asia many thousands of years ago as the last ice age retreated. Our continent was briefly visited by Scandinavians, Chinese[2], and finally permanently settled by groups of Spanish/Portuguese, French, German and English speaking peoples. Some came to live here, many came to make their fortunes and then move back home to Europe as wealthy people. America was founded on the get rich quick scheme. Eventually, people from every corner of our world came to the Americas to live permanently here. Among them were people enslaved as property.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The more prosperous, more advantaged of us adopted this ideal of democracy from the ancient Greeks and Romans. Everyone who came to these shores through hard work, determination, and faith in their creator could be successful. Could share in the wealth of our country. Could share in the decision making process of politics. But ‘everyone’ was not every person here. Everyone did not include women. Everyone did not include people who did not own land. Everyone did not include the people already here. Everyone did not include those enslaved and owned by others. Some of us were more ‘equal’ than others[3].

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. After some period of assimilation, everyone who comes to our continent is supposed to share fully in the rights, responsibilities, and privileges of an American. But it ain’t necessarily so [4]. The people at the top of our American hierarchy, have decided they like being privileged. To the detriment of all of us, the caste system of ‘whiteness’ was adopted to separate who can enjoy all the benefits and privileges, and those who should know and keep to their place out of sight and out of mind. The non-white people who should be grateful for the scraps they receive, grudgingly paid from the enormous wealth that they create for their fellow Americans who just happen to be more equal than they.

Once again we celebrate another Juneteenth. During this most recent 55 year cycle of partisan strife between those who are white, ‘normal’, ‘American’ and those who are striving for equality, safety, and inclusion for everyone who is attempting to live in our America. If there is anything that can unite us all, it is that sadness which is the original sin of America: that for some of us to be so prosperous, many more of us have to be exploited and destroyed. For some of us to be included, many more of us must be excluded.

For the upholders of the status quo – our uniquely American systemic, cultural, racial and class based caste system – who claim that eventually we will all share in the benefits of our society. That nagging feeling, that constant doubt, that fear of the other, that insecurity that all the hard won status of whiteness might be lost. For in America it is not what you are, who you know, or even what you have done that count – but what have you done for me lately – which maintains your status on the job, or in your community. This leads to that zealous rage against these people who protest, who remind us all of our troubled past and present. Who remind us of what we would leave safely buried. Underlying that rage and fear is that American sadness that things will never be as in that mythic past when everyone knew their proper place.

To those who celebrate this Juneteenth. For the protesters who feel they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. To those who know that in the long arc of history all people must eventually breath free. To those who ask the questions of all of us, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” We celebrate our past progress in the certain hope that someday all people will be free, welcomed, and included in our America. While at the same time, we feel that bittersweet American sadness that for all the progress we have made we have so very far to go.

[1] Every ~fifty-five years we experience racial based unrest in the United States – examples:

  • War of 1812 (British forces promised enslaved Americans freedom if they helped British forces)
  • American Civil War 1861-1865
  • Racial unrest during/after WWI 1910s-20s
  • Late 1960s-early 70s
  • Now

    [2] Menzies, Gavin. 1421: The Year China Discovered America. New York, NY, USA, William Morrow Paperbacks, [2008. Print.

    [3] Orwell, George. Animal Farm: A Fairy Story. New York, NY, USA : Signet Classics, [1996. Print.

    [4] Ira Gershwin, DuBose Hayward. “It Ain’t Necessarily So” From the Album “Highlights from George Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess”, performed by John DeMain with the Houston Grand Opera, RCA Victor, May 12, 1997. Audio Recording.