There are times I struggle celebrating the Fourth of July. I have a hard time watching and listening to fireworks. Too often they evoke memories of being trapped in my Beirut apartment on Nuzli Daouk during the Lebanese Civil War as rival militias – Christian Phalangists who had taken over the Holiday Inn to my north and Muslim Militias in the Murr Tower to my south – exchanged gunfire, rockets, and RPGs, all seemingly above my head.
Today, I don’t tolerate fireworks well.
Today, as much as I love and celebrate the idea of the Fourth of July, I tend to do it away from the glare of flaring lights and loud noises.
I love Independence Day because it’s meant to celebrate an idea, an idea that celebrates freedom, independence and vision above the personal vanities of any individual, an idea that inspires and reminds of America’s potential and promise. An idea that speaks to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, in 1852, recognized that our Declaration of Independence “ … will be acted o’er, fellow-citizens, but it can never be repeated. It stands, and must forever stand alone, a beacon on the summit of the mountain, to which all the inhabitants of the earth may turn their eyes for a genial and saving light, till time shall be lost in eternity, and this globe itself dissolve, nor leave a wreck behind. It stands forever, a light of admonition to the rulers of men; a light of salvation and redemption to the oppressed.”
In that speech – today referred to as the "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” – delivered on July 5, 1852, to the Rochester, New York, Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass recognized the beauty inspired by the aspirational vision of our Declaration of Independence.
This week, in an Independence Day speech delivered from behind a protective rain-streaked plexiglass barrier separating him from the nation, President Donald J. Trump appropriated July 4th for himself, delivering in a sing-song presentation a simplistic, Wikipedia-lite version of our exceptional history.
Trump selfishly appropriated, in defiance of our Founding Fathers’ vision – and seemingly in delusional over-compensation – a day designed for all the people and made it personal.
I watched, not because I wanted to but because, I think, I wanted to see if anyone might inspire him – are there any adults left in his service? – into trying to bring the nation together after years of strife and division. Bring America together over aspirational visions too many have abandoned.
What was I thinking?
What could possibly go wrong in a presentation that deployed tanks, jets, helicopters, Air Force One, military bands, Vice President Mike Pence and hundreds of military personal who should have had the day off rather than be forced to support the mercurial vanities of their commander-in-chief?
What could go wrong with a crowd divided into haves and have-nots by the Republican National Committee?
Trump lost me for good when he cynically evoked memories of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Jackie Robinson to support a white exceptionalist Mayberry view of a nation not born in sin.
When he mentioned Jackie Robinson I remembered that Robinson wrote, in his autobiography, “There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people … It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands … Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first World Series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”
Too many never have it made.
As Trump read from his teleprompter it became increasingly clear he had no emotional connection with our military, our people, our strengths and our diversity and challenges that had made this country great. He couldn’t recognize that America has always been great.
He couldn’t recognize we’re the most powerful nation on earth not because of tanks and walls but because we have aligned ourselves with aspirational virtues that align with universal
How redemptive it would have been to hear him say America is a work in progress, to hear him recognize what most of the world intuitively understands; that we are all connected to everyone – to everything – that at a very fundamental level we are all one upon whom mutual survival depends.
That we are connected through discovery and loss, not though tanks.
How redemptive it would’ve been if, as he was telling America’s story, he had acknowledged that our struggles – our unfinished struggle to abolish slavery and to secure the franchise and civil rights for all Americans – are ongoing.
How redemptive it would’ve been to acknowledge that when we cage children whom we’ve separated from parents we are little different from slave owners who ripped children from their mother’s breasts in order to turn a profit.
“Cling to this day,” Frederick Douglass said in the speech that presaged the Civil War. “Cling to it, and to its principles, with the grasp of a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight … At a time like this, scorching iron, not convincing argument, is needed … It is not light that is needed, but fire. It is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. . . “
We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.
Robert Azzi, a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter, can be reached at email@example.com. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.