Patriots and Presbyterians

I’ve spent the vast majority of my July 4ths in the comfort of annual traditions – pasta salad, strawberries, grilling burgers and hot dogs; the company of my second family, the Morrises; sitting on porches as twilight falls.

My earliest associations with July 4th are dually wonderful and terrifying – in the Sterling, VA, neighborhood where I spent my earliest years (and where the Morrises were our neighbors), we had an annual bike race. All the kids in the neighborhood jazzed up their bikes with ribbons their parents rooted out of junk drawers and sewing kits, and then we’d complete a lap around the neighborhood. The oldest kids (who must have been eight or nine) would race around us at unimaginable speeds, while the youngest toddlers would be left far behind as a desert of asphalt grew between them and the kids in the average age group. These were the late 90s, when being patriotic meant buying an Old Navy t-shirt with the year’s date and you wouldn’t be caught dead wearing last year’s. It was consumer madness before the economy crashed and I became aware of America’s fragility.

Unfortunately, one of my earliest encounters with fireworks was seen through a fever-induced haze – one of those childhood fevers where you aren’t sick but your temperature has mysteriously spiked. To this day, I shudder whenever fireworks explode. It’s incredible how much of our memory is tied intricately to our senses – the whoosh and scream of a pinwheel, the explosion of light, the clamminess, the headache, the shiver – it’s all somehow linked, encoded into the memory my body stores.

I like this song better than seeing actual fireworks, and for now I’m comfortable with the substitution:

This year, as I spend the 4th in a city whose summer traditions are unfamiliar to me, far away from my family, I’m looking at July 4th in a new way.

First of all, I’m seeing July 4th as a peculiar holiday in many ways. Patriotism is curious in that it’s a sentiment that almost everyone understands, but it’s tricky to explain in a way that lets other people see why grilled tubes of meat (better known as hot dogs), exploding sticks (better known as sparklers), and spontaneous games of baseball are charged with proud emotions. Even more curiously, status as an American citizen doesn’t necessarily impact celebration of the holiday. I walked out of my room this morning to find my Singaporean housemate, Sanaya, wearing an American flag crop top.

Second of all, and much more importantly, my work on Explorations in Black Leadership has made more more aware than ever of the injustices committed against members of minority communities. America’s disturbing history of slavery makes the injustices committed against the African American community particularly institutionalized. Of July 4th, Frederick Douglass famously said,

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty 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 sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, 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 the United States, at this very hour.

Slavery and state mandated racial segregation may be considered unlawful today, but racism and discrimination continue as a palpable perversion of American claims to freedom, liberty, and justice for all. This July 4th, my fondness for my country is tainted by my sense of responsibility and implication in its institutionalized mistreatment of my fellow citizens. Despite the abuses against them, the black leaders whose interviews I have spent the past six weeks reviewing have improved this country immeasurably by maintaining an ongoing fight against injustice committed on the basis of race.

I wondered if Scotland had a comparable patriotic holiday, and a quick Google search revealed that, of course, Scotland does – St. Andrews Day. St. Andrews Day! I had marked it on my calendar weeks ago without knowing its meaning. This year, it will be celebrated on November 30th. It’s a bank holiday, which means that the University will probably give us a day off from classes in order to give us time to participate in or observe traditional Scottish dancing (ceilidhs), indulgence in traditional Scottish foods, bagpipe playing, and general merriment.

The Scottish flag, known as the Saltire, is traditionally flown on St. Andrews Day. (image from: http://cdn.sosogay.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Saltire.jpg)

The Scottish flag, known as the Saltire, is traditionally flown on St. Andrews Day. Does that stormy sky in the background indicate a conflicted sense of pride, as July 4th evokes in America? (Image from: http://cdn.sosogay.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Saltire.jpg)

With America’s hypocrisy on my mind, I wondered if Scotland’s national festivities concealed any similar strife. I was raised in the Catholic church, so I recognized St. Andrew as a Catholic saint, as well as Catholics’ status as a historically hated minority in some heavily Protestant areas in Europe. Indeed, another Google search revealed that Catholicism was banned from Scotland for several hundred years. The 15th century Scottish Reformation brought laws that prohibited the celebration of Catholic mass. According to a Wikipedia article, religious strife in Ireland brought a migration of Catholics into Scotland during the 19th century. This might be a totally unfair comparison, but outcast migrants, state-mandated discrimination – it sounds familiar to me.¬†However, I (perhaps incorrectly) perceive Scotland as a Presbyterian country, and Presbyterians do recognize some Catholic saints, St. Andrew among them. Is he a Protestant hero or a an oddly celebrated Catholic?

My patchy understanding of religion and European history makes it difficult for me to gather anywhere close to a full picture of Scotland’s climate on this holiday – that will have to wait until I’m there to experience it this fall. But it’s a question that interests me greatly. Can pride ever be enjoyed without recognition of wrongdoing? Is there ever a time or place to put recognition of injustice aside?

These are questions that many people consider daily. They hover in the back of my mind and come out in conversation whenever anyone asks about my job this summer. But for now, I’m heading to a cookout.

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