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Letter 3: A Fourth of July Reflection

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

Dear White America,

This July 4th came and went in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the unyielding passion and grit of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the 2020 presidential campaign. I chose to spend it in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, with my boyfriend, our Civil War interpreting attire, and our face masks, hand sanitizer, and social distancing attempts. To say I learned a lot would be an understatement. I am still grappling with having witnessed the good, the bad, and the ugly of America within 48 hours. For me, the 4th of July 2020 can be summarized in three words: Conflict. Frustration. Sadness.

Independence Day elicited much conflict within me this year. To be fair, it has been many years since I have described myself as "proud to be an American." The blatant hypocrisy I see in our government - federal, state, and local - stops me from placing my hand over my heart and singing carefree patriotic anthems to a manmade institution watered by the blood and tears of slave labor. That discontent, that uneasiness, was only heightened this year.

On the one hand, the 4th of July marks the beginning of this American experiment. It celebrates the first toddling steps of a new, revolutionary idea that a people can be governed by themselves, without a sovereign monarch. July 4, 1776, was the dawn of a new start, and with new starts comes a feeling of hope.

On the other hand, the concept of "independence" was strictly a colonies-from-England thing when that feather pen hit parchment, not a sweeping declaration of human independence. Miriam-Webster defines "independence" as:

2. not being under the rule or control of another

// finally they are an independent people, after centuries of domination by their more powerful neighbors

So while the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant founders declared independence from England using the savvily crafted language of "all men are created equal" (see How to Be an Anti-Racist by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi for commentary on the subtle difference between "created equal" and "equal" and the subsequent, lethal impact), the Native Americans continued to be subjugated and the Black slaves continued to be beaten, raped, ripped apart from their family members, and forced to literally work to death. With the tragically belated white awakening to present-day oppression of Black Americans, I could not justify lounging around on July 4th in my white skin without reflection on how contradictory our nation's founding was and continues to be.

Although numbers of positive COVID-19 cases have spiked again, and although it is mandatory in Pennsylvania to wear masks whenever one leaves their home, I was frustrated (if not also angered and disappointed) that I was in the mask-wearing minority this weekend. I sat on a porch, mindful of keeping space between myself and other historical interpreters, and watched as an estimated three-fourths (3/4ths!!!) of the pedestrians who passed were not wearing masks. To rephrase, it became an exciting sighting to see a person actually wearing a face mask. These maskless pedestrians along Gettysburg's main drag were diverse in all ways except one: they were all white. I saw old, white-haired couples, groups of young friends, and parents with their children -- even a woman who was pregnant and brandishing a "Women For Trump" flag -- all white and without masks on their faces.

These people were walking right next to each other, passing in close proximity on a public sidewalk. Even from over 6 feet away, elevated on an open-air porch, I felt unsafe. My mask becomes near-useless if others are not wearing their own. Why was my concern for others' health and safety not reciprocated? Have the myriad reports and infographics about the efficacy of masks not made their way onto the news sites and social feeds of these hundreds of people I saw walking that day?

Tied in level of frustration with the maskless Gettysburg populous was the profound sadness I experienced as I witnessed person after person touting garish displays of Confederate flags and Trump paraphernalia, not only on their clothing but on their vehicles and children. There were several vehicles (of the category "gas-guzzler") that I saw driving back and forth in front of where I was sitting; over the three hours or so that I spent on that porch, I saw the same handful of vehicles at least 6 times (six times!!!). These trucks and humvees (yes, a humvee) bore oversized Trump flags of all styles, Confederate flags, and American flags, all at the same time. One truck had the words "ALL LIVES MATTER" and "BLUE LIVES MATTER" painted on their windows in addition to the Trump and Confederate flags flapping off the sides. Another had a white flag with black text reading "LGBT - Liberty, Guns, Beer, Tits" (as a straight-passing, queer woman, this felt personal). People had their rifles on display, sitting in the truck beds of these heavily decorated vehicles patrolling Baltimore Street. I saw one pedestrian toting a conspicuously placed knife. I witnessed groups civilians in tactical vests carrying rifles, just standing at the cemetery entrance, facing the street and sternly looking around. My boyfriend, visibly and audibly annoyed, vented, "Who are they trying to intimidate? Why do these people feel the need to seek attention like this?"

First, let's have a little conversation about the Confederate flag. One of the (many) Confederate flag shirts I saw on July 4th had an image of the flag with the text, "If this flag offends you, then you need a history lesson" (pretty similar to this). This is actually pretty ironic because of the history of the flags of the Confederacy, so much to that shirt-wearer's chagrin, it is he who needs the history lesson. In short, what the general American populous associates with the Confederacy (the red flag with the blue stripes crossing, donned with white stars) what not the flag of the Confederate States of America. The CSA went through three national flags before it rejoined the Union, none of which were solid read with a star-studded blue X.

Second, it seems a bit contradictory to be celebrating the United States of America's birthday with a flag evocative of a group of states who seceded from the Union that was formed on July 4th. The Civil War - both the Confederacy and the Union - is history that belongs to all of us. It is in our nation's blood, of our nation's blood. The War forced family apart, and it took force to bring the nation back together. But to proudly brandish a symbol harkening back to slave-laden times on a day celebrating unity? And to effectively do so with the wrong flag? If any readers have some logic behind this, please share. I seek to be educated as much as I seek to educate.

Third, the phenomenon of Trump's followers rallying behind a name and merchandise as opposed to a slogan is both fascinating and disconcerting, something weighing heavy on my chest. George W. Bush did not have flags, stickers, hats, and teddy bears anywhere near to the ubiquitous level of Trump, nor was Bush intertwined in association with the Confederate flag. Barack Obama ran on the platform slogans of "Change" and "Hope," very forward-looking and inclusive words that are in stark contrast with the backward-looking and white-favoring "Make America Great Again" and "Keep America Great", both of which could have "white" substituted for "great" and have practically the same effect. Is this reality a commentary on consumerism and last-stage capitalism, and the juncture at which they intersect with race?

Last, and importantly, the ability or right to do something does not mean you should do it. I recently came upon this quote uttered by the late Rev. Peter Marshall, 57th chaplain of the US Senate:

May we think of freedom, not as the right to do as we please, but as the opportunity to do what is right.

This applies to firearms as well as to face masks, and everything in between. I encourage everyone to meditate on that quote, and how it applies to daily life as well as long-term plans. I know that I am.

During the morning of Saturday the 4th, I had turned to my boyfriend as we walked across a historically preserved homestead that had been used as a field hospital during the Civil War, and I said to him, "I am so glad that we are spending the 4th of July learning about our country's history instead of just laying out and drinking all day." And I meant it. I was humbled and challenged by our day in the most quotidian ways. The evening before, July 3, we took a 3+ mile walk through Culp's Hill at dusk, and it was haunting to imagine the brutality and wreckage of the Battle of Gettysburg unfolding right where our feet hit pavement. I turned to my boyfriend and said, sickly, "A dead body could have been exactly where I am standing right now." I visualized bodies bleeding out, cries of pain, and the smoke and crack of gunfire surrounding me. I shuddered. Walking back to our lodgings, there was such a calm about the setting sun casting long shadows across the fields. I was sobered by the thought of battalions pitching tents here, witnessing the temporary serenity of nightfall with the knowledge that they very well may face death upon waking.

This was the first time I saw meaning in my actions on a federal holiday, on the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Let me repeat that - I have been alive for nearly 28 years and do not recall having ever done anything meaningful on July 4th, arguably one of the most important dates in the American historical compendium, given that our country would not exist without it. To see people going about their day, celebrating as if there was no pandemic going on, meandering carefree while Black America continues to march for their life... it gave me pause. I was conflicted, I was frustrated, I was sad.

To those who respond to "Black Lives Matter" with "All Lives Matter", I ask you this: did all lives matter when...

...the Declaration of Independence was signed?

...the Civil War was fought?

...sharecropping was substituted for slavery?

...segregation was legal?

...Breonna Taylor was fatally shot 8 times while asleep in bed, yet Dylann Roof was peacefully arrested and taken to Burger King after murdering 9 Black worshipers in a Charleston, SC, church?

To those who respond to "Black Lives Matter" with "Blue Lives Matter," I ask you this:

Do these "Blue lives" of which you speak have the ability to take off the "blue" you have linked to their identity when they get home? Because Blackness is part of Black identity, something that a person cannot disrobe, wash, and hang in the closet until the next work day.

To those who balk at the idea of wearing a mask, I kindly remind you of 3 things:

1) COVID-19 often presents without any symptoms. You will feel healthy, yet you will still be a contagious carrier of the virus.

2) Masks function at keeping germs from being expelled. That is to say, by putting a mask over my nose and mouth, my germs are not going to reach you. By the same token, if you wear a mask, then your germs will not reach me. It is much less effective for only me to wear a mask if the person walking by me is both maskless and a carrier of COVID-19. BUT! If everyone wears a mask, then the virus germs will be trapped by our masks from reaching other people.

3) I wear my mask to protect you. Please wear your mask to protect me (and your parents, your children, and the people with whom we interact).

Dear White America, I am looking at you when I say that this weekend should have felt different. This weekend should have felt heavy and complicated. If nothing this Independence Day made you think differently or made you uncomfortable, why do you think that was?

Challenge the messages and company that you choose to surround you. Diversify the content you consume. Be patriotic in the best way possible: be critical of your government, hold officials accountable for their actions, and hold steadfast to the idea that just because something is good for you does not mean it is good for all. There is always room for improvement.


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