What to Don Lemon is the Fourth of July?
Today is the Fourth of July. It is the day 238 years ago – in 1776 – when white men declared themselves free from the tyranny and injustice inflicted upon them by the British government. Sadly, African American slaves wouldn’t see a formal end to slavery until almost 100 years later. They wouldn’t see an end to legalized Jim Crow laws in the South until almost 100 years after that. And, they wouldn’t experience free and equal opportunity in voting and civil rights until a decade later. Black folks would struggle with structural limitations to liberty up until just about thirty years ago, about the time the War on Drugs geared up. So, suffice it to say that black people in this country have had a conflicted history (to say the least) with “Independence Day.” But, CNN host Don Lemon seems to believe we should all put this troubled past behind us and drop the “prefixes” in the name of patriotism and democracy. Interesting.
By interesting I of course mean reductive, naive, small, and trite. To think that we should all just bury the hatchet because it is the Fourth of July is completely unrealistic. But, it is his reasoning that leaves the most room for error.
On the Tom Joyner Morning Show yesterday, Lemon waxed poetic about the unity he saw from the US soccer team who recently lost in the World Cup. Despite their failure, he saw the team’s ability to come together “as a disparate team of brothers” to inspire Americans looking on with admiration.
He claimed that Americans seeing one another as “black, white, Asian, and Hispanic” wasn’t about what the “real America” was about. To Lemon, seeing racial difference is the problem rather than the very real social consequences facing racial minorities in this country.
“Think about just how much we’d get accomplished if we collectively viewed the people with whom we came into contact as just an American and not an American with a prefix,” he said. “If we did it for something arguably as trivial as a sporting event, surely we can do it for something as important as democracy — just as our founders did 238 years ago this week. Something to think about on this Independence Day.”
The instructor in me couldn’t help but think about Frederick Douglass’ 1852 Fourth of July address to the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society in Rochester, NY when I heard this. In it, Douglass questioned how a nation so deeply entrenched in the injustice of American slavery could celebrate national freedom. He called out whites for demanding that blacks share their penchant for liberty with fireworks and festivities irregardless of their enslaved state.
“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelly 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 sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, 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 these United States, at this very hour.”
Over a 150 years ago, Douglass noted the palpable conflict between the narrative of independence and the real lived experiences of black Americans. Many of us still raise those questions. However, Lemon believes that these questions are solvable with a little camaraderie and willful ignorance. There are some clear deficiencies with this argument.
For one, Lemon leads into the conversation setting the tone that what he is saying is somehow patriotic. He seems to believe that colorblindness is true patriotism and anything else – like self-identifying, political efficacy, individuality, and personal agency – is un-American. This is the age-old notion that American-ness is defined by how closely one resembles the dominant white culture. How un-nappy your hair is, how fair your skin is, and how “articulately” you speak. Minorities are expected to contort to the shape, form, and fashion most palatable to whites to be judged as true patriots. Lemon, too, has been sipping on this American Kool-Aid recipe. Only thing he fails to realize is that pretending to be white won’t make it so. No matter how we bend, institutional racism will continue to exist.
Similarly, Lemon calls for us to do as our Founding Fathers did in the name of democracy. The democracy which he looks back so fondly on is the very same one Douglass questioned in his masterpieces so long ago. Lemon is either devoid of knowledge of this country’s vast history or he is intentionally ignoring how undemocratic this nation was and continues to be. In the era he longs for, he wouldn’t have been allowed to speak let alone lift his head to address white men as equals. His platform, which he obviously takes for granted, would be nonexistent. His democracy – one where people of color simply blend in – wouldn’t be democracy at all.
Maybe Lemon doesn’t mean any of this. Maybe this is his way of sensationalizing and drawing attention to himself. Maybe he is winning because I am writing this. But, I can’t help but think he sees at least a shred of truth in his words. And it pains me, but in my gut, I gather that his elitism has perverted his sense of kinship and connection to the history which delivered him to his present station.
I have to ask, “What to Don Lemon is the Fourth of July?” Is it a day to celebrate liberty, freedom, justice, and democracy? Or is it, as it seems for him, a day of pomp and circumstance, a day of veneer and plasticity, a day of fabrication? For me, it will continue to be a day of critique. I am a proud, patriotic American woman, yet I can analyze my status in this country while enjoying the privileges I employ in this nation. Lemon has yet to understand the importance of critical reasoning when assessing the complexities of American-ness. Hopefully he gets the message sooner rather than later.
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