by Dr. Herukhuti
“To side with the right, against the wrong, with the weak against the strong, and with the oppressed against the oppressor! here lies the merit, and the one which, of all others, seems unfashionable in our day. The cause of liberty may be stabbed by the men who glory in the deeds of your fathers.” – Frederick Douglass, 5th of July 1852, from What to the Slave is the Fourth of July
It is really difficult being a social and cultural critic in the United States. As a human being, I want to find community with other humans. I want to share in the life of the community with a carefree sensibility. I want to participate in the enjoyment of the things we do as a society with others. But, because of the powers of discernment that my critical thinking skills afford me, I am frequently an inside-outsider to the cultural life around me. I participate and witness simultaneously—seeing things that apparently escape others—and my alienation grows.
On Friday of last week, the 4th of July, I took my partner to see the Macy’s fireworks display on the East River. Although I am a native New Yorker, it was my first time attending the show and the first time since 2009 that the show was held on the East River rather than the Hudson River. I tend to avoid tourist sites, event where larger crowds are expected, and mainstream celebrations. The imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist and/or heteropatriachal politics of those spaces and the potential for the spaces to be terrorist attack targets give me enough incentive to avoid them.
But I’m in an important relationship now—my first in many years—with a partner who is not from New York. Creating opportunities to spend intimate time together—a break from the daily struggle to survive in a city that is inhospitable to poor and working class, queer people of color—is so important to the health and vitality of our relationship. That sometimes looks like doing things that I would tend not to do like going to see the fireworks show.
I won’t spend time here critiquing the different levels of privilege between those who trekked to the Brooklyn Promenade or waterfront from their inland homes to watch the show and those who could have dinner parties on the balconies and patios of their East River adjacent townhouses and condos. I won’t do that because I want to use this space to talk about the fireworks display specifically.
There is general agreement on the Chinese origin of fireworks. The technology was developed in places like Europe to provide the world with lethal devices such as firearms, missiles, and bombs. The science that provides us with the beauty of light, color, and sound we experience in celebration also provides us with the horror of the explosive, concussive and destructive force we experience in violence.
As the fireworks show began, I stood on the Brooklyn Promenade pressed against my partner’s body, arm around his waist, looking at the Freedom Tower directly across the river from me. Seeing the fireworks explode in the same atmosphere of the World Trade Center brought me back to the explosions that singed the air on the 11th of September 2001. I thought about the gun-slinging bravado that soon followed after the towers fell. The murderous crusade into Iraq that followed.
I was reminded of how the United States celebrates with violence (e.g., twenty-one gun salute). I thought about the occasion commemorated by the 4th of July—the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. The many lives lost in the war of independence that followed. Sung during celebrations of the 4th but also at sporting events and other moments of patriotic acknowledgement is the first verse of the national anthem, which includes “And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.” The United States finds comfort in violence.
As I stood there rocked by the sonic force of the fireworks explosions hitting the wall behind me, I came to terms with how much of a native son I am to this place I critique so much. The DNA of my ancestors has literally enriched the soil of the United States. Their labor enriched the society. I feel fear for the safety of my loved ones at the thought of another attack on New York. That fear ties me to other New Yorkers as much as the fears for the safety of my loved ones due to police brutality, economic violence, and gun violence separate me from other New Yorkers among the elite and privileged.
The embrace of my national identity in those moments didn’t eliminate any of my Pan African identity or global citizenship. Because as I thought about my investment in the health and wellbeing of my loved ones against the backdrop of the exploding projectiles of the fireworks show, I questioned what it must feel like to live somewhere in which the United States has an active drone program. I wondered what it must be to live with the anxiety that a missile authorized by the waving of the hand of a loving husband, father, and son, President Barack Obama, speeds toward the earth to kill a selected target who happens to be near you or your loved ones. We have to keep the United States safe for our loved ones so we rationalize the dead and maimed bodies of someone else’s loved ones we collect into a euphemism we call collateral damage.
The United States finds comfort in violence. That’s why our gun laws are what they are. It’s why there were 82 people shot in Chicago over that weekend, 14 of whom died. It’s why all the kids who grew up on my street and I knew how to distinguish between the sounds of a gunshot and fireworks. It’s why there was a bullet hole in my bedroom window in the apartment in which I grew up. It’s why I could find shell casings around the neighborhood.
We celebrate with violence and celebrate in violence. Perhaps, when we come to time in the culture when we can celebrate peace, when we can honor the deaths of victims of violence and war without the smell of gunpowder, the sounds of explosions, and the sight of burning remains, we will truly be purveyors of the ideals we so often espouse to the world. Perhaps, then, the empire will be no more and parents who love their children won’t be responsible for the deaths of other parents and children.