Progressives Need to Celebrate America's Triumphs, Not Just Criticize Its Tragedies
Ian Reifowitz is the author of "Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity," forthcoming in July from Potomac Books. He is Associate Professor of History at S.U.N.Y.-Empire State College.
I've read a lot of articles and blog posts about July 4 this year. As a progressive, there is a certain kind of post that always pushes my buttons and gets me thinking, and I read one that inspired me to write. The post centers on Frederick Douglass's iconic speech "The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro," delivered in Rochester, New York in 1852. As many of you know, the speech delineated the alienation slaves, and African Americans in general, felt from July 4 specifically but from America more broadly as well.
Although the most often quoted section is about that sense of alienation, it is also important to remember Douglass's conclusion to the speech:
Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. "The arm of the Lord is not shortened," and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from "the Declaration of Independence," the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.
Even in this speech, Douglass remained optimistic about the future, despite the reality that the present in 1852 was so awful for blacks in this country. That's important to note as well.
President Obama gave a speech on June 30, 2008, called "The America We Love," which bears some resemblance in terms of approach to Douglass's speech. It wasn't a speech about the meaning of America for blacks as a whole, but of what America meant to him as an individual. Also, only one of the speakers was in the middle of a presidential campaign. Nevertheless, we can fruitfully compare the two speeches. In fact, Colbert I. King of the Washington Post did so just after Obama made his.
King noted that Obama, even in this speech, even while running for president and having his patriotism questioned, did not whitewash America's history by ignoring the dark chapters therein. Although as a boy he had expressed a childlike love of our country, his patriotism remained strong even as he gained more knowledge and a fuller understanding of our past:
Obama said that as he got older, that instinct, "that America is the greatest country on earth -- would survive my growing awareness of our nation's imperfections."
Racial strife, poverty and the political corruption revealed by Watergate, Obama said, were outweighed by the "joys of American life and culture, its vitality and its freedom."
King then neatly summarized the differences between Douglass's and Obama's speeches:
While Douglass noted his estrangement from America's experiment with democracy, Obama claimed America as his own and the Fourth of July as a time to rejoice.
My suspicion, especially given his hopeful conclusion, is that were he alive today Douglass would speak about America in a way that resembles Obama (not only in the above cited speech but in the body of his public remarks over twenty years) in the broadest sense.
Neither would ignore the horrific crimes of the past, nor the way the legacy of those crimes continues to resonate for the descendants of the victims in the present. Neither would shrink from highlighting the continuing, fresh injustices being visited on African Americans and members of other groups today. But both would also present a narrative that is, while full of struggle, one of hope and of gradual progress. That's a narrative that is both accurate and far more likely to be accepted as consensus by a broad swath of Americans of all backgrounds.
Those of us on the Left have to be wary of focusing too much collectively on feelings of alienation from this country. What we cannot do -- what Douglass himself did not do, as seen in the conclusion to his 1852 speech -- is to cede patriotism and an embrace of America to the Right.
There has to be a way we can shine a light on the problems in our country that need attention while still publicly embracing a commitment to the whole country, the whole community. We have to do both of those things at the same time, over and over again, in order to get our point across successfully.
We know that this country can and must do better on a whole host of different fronts, and in order to do so we need to understand our history in full. A history that emphasizes only our crimes and ignores the progress is but the mirror image of one that does the opposite, one that presents our history as one solely bathed in glory and righteousness. And if those are the only two options, many middle-of-the-road Americans are likely to be more attracted to the former simply because it sounds more familiar and feels better. Historians -- and not just those on the Left -- need to present a balanced picture.
This is the way Barack Obama speaks about America's past, present, and future, and connects his vision of America to policies he is proposing going forward. We can see it in his own July 4 remarks:
On that July day, our Founders declared their independence. But they only declared it; it would take another seven years to win the war. Fifteen years to forge a Constitution and a Bill of Rights. Nearly ninety years, and a great Civil War, to abolish slavery. Nearly one hundred fifty years for women to win the right to vote. Nearly one hundred ninety years to enshrine voting rights. And even now, we're still perfecting our union, still extending the promise of America.
That includes making sure the American dream endures for all those -- like these men and women -- who are willing to work hard, play by the rules and meet their responsibilities. For just as we remain a nation of laws, we have to remain a nation of immigrants. And that's why, as another step forward, we're lifting the shadow of deportation from serving -- from deserving young people who were brought to this country as children. It's why we still need a DREAM Act -- to keep talented young people who want to contribute to our society and serve our country. It's why we need -- why America's success demands -- comprehensive immigration reform.
And of course that's what successful progressives have long done. Frederick Douglass did it, even in the speech discussed above. So did Martin Luther King in his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," where he predicted that the civil rights movement would succeed because "the goal of America is freedom," and in his "I Have A Dream" speech, where he proclaimed the dream of which he spoke that day was "deeply rooted in the American dream." So did Harvey Milk, when he said, "All men are created equal. Now matter how hard they try, they can never erase those words. That is what America is about." So did Barbara Jordan, who noted, "What the people want is simple. They want an America as good as its promise."
Progressives must criticize, that is crucial. But we also need to inspire, because inspiration is how we motivate action.
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