Sunday, July 04, 2010

Family, Flags and the Fourth of July: A Meditation

We at Tenured Radical are conflicted on the subject of July 4. We are not nationalists, much less homonationalists, whatever our critics might assert (although we will cop to being homos.) And yet, July 4 is one of the few secular holidays on the calendar, and cannot help but provoke thoughts about the national past.

My father always made a big production of hanging out the flag on Independence Day: in addition to having been an Eagle Scout and Jack Armstrong type of character, he was a veteran of several different government services in WWII and the Cold War. He knew how to tie all the knots on the flagpole so that the flag draped correctly, how it ought to be folded and put away, and how to perform a blind information drop using a newspaper. In my preteen years, when I announced my intention to have a career either as a spy or a private investigator, he bought me The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook for my birthday, which gave perfect instructions on how to do a two-man and a three-man surveillance, how to lift a fingerprint using items found around the house, and how to collect and analyze forensic evidence (which led to some derivative skills that remain useful to this day.)

While the maternal side of the family is far more likely to hang a flag on July 1, Dad's bunch got to New England early enough to participate in the gruesome business of colonization, expropriation of Indian lands, and Revolution. By the early 19th century, one member of the paternal branch was farming in southern New Jersey, and some historical research my late father did pointed to the probability that they did so with the forced labor of enslaved people. He was somewhat equivocal on this point, but -- aside from the ties between New Jersey and the plantation states, and New Jersey's failure to abolish legal slavery until 1866 -- I am pretty clear that a large black family and a large white family with the same surname, living in the same area well into the twentieth century, is not a coincidence. What do you think?

Another part of the family from which I am directly descended originally landed in Massachusetts and migrated west to settle in the NorthAdams-Pittsfield region (does this not point to probable participation in King Philip's War and other anti-Native American atrocities?) Evidence also shows that descendants of that group served in the American Revolution and in the Union Army during the Civil War: we have several elderly fowling pieces and a humongous sword in an umbrella stand at home as lasting tokens of their patriotism. Another North Adams ancestor is said to have participated in devising the blasting technology that was essential to completing the Hoosac Tunnel in 1875. This project, which sought to connect Massachusetts factories to the lucrative project of American territorial expansion, was initiated in 1819, but did not break ground until 1848 (ring any bells?) It was one of the deadliest, longest and most expensive railroad projects in United States history and was nicknamed "the bloody pit" for the number of (Irish immigrant?) workers it consumed. But the blasting technology had greater historical significance, since it eventually allowed railroads to be built through the western mountain ranges rather than over and around them.

Our virtues as a family are equalled by our flaws, I'm afraid. Flag rituals are a tradition that I do not perpetuate, in part because of the forms of flag worship that have been associated with war and right-wing patriotism in my lifetime, and in part because I simply know too much history. However, I do like the above photograph, and it is my contribution to today's celebrations. It is a flag garden outside the Columbus, Ohio Statehouse, snapped with the iPhone early last month when I was there for a conference. The flower flag was planted by the Columbus Garden Club; besides being a civic act of a kind rarely seen in Eastern Postindustrial Cities, I thought it was really clever in a kind of bourgeois chic way, and very Ohio -- like Jello molds with marshmallows, and massive fireworks displays, which I also like.

So happy July 4, everyone! Celebrate it in your own way, and stay safe.


Anonymous said...

Claire, do you know what I love about this? Everything. I love how being learned aboutsters the history of our country makes you modest--modest as a citizen of a most morally ambiguous nation. It's like an American version of "Two Cheers for Democracy". Happy Fourth, Claire.
Jeff Nunokawa

human said...

I am similarly conflicted about 4th of July, but I also like the flower flag!

Tenured Radical said...

Jeff: muchos besos!

One of the useful perspectives I acquired in S. Africa is that, in a land where racism devastated the vast majority of people, that perhaps the most important question is, acknowledge the past and tell us how you are going to contribute to democracy now?

This is very different from the US model, which is to either be self-servingly "guilty" about white supremacy & race privilege, or to say that it never really mattered in the first place. It's also interesting that a family like mine -- which has been of fairly middling status over the course of centuries - had direct connections to every single form of racial exploitation available. I think the reward for that was not getting rich, but not becoming poor (see David Roediger's Wages of Whiteness.)

Notorious Ph.D. said...

And now I would very much like to see a flag made out of lined-up molded jello. Can we work something up for next year? I can meet you in, oh, say, Hamilton?

sallie parker said...

It is very disturbing how anti-American and anti-European bias is just accepted as a given. Red Indian savages were just that; they weren't 'native americans'--they weren't native, ancestrally, and they had nothing to do with the creation of America. You have only to read the tortures and martyrdom of Jogues and Brebuf to see what these noble savages really were like.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I was on a run down by the beach this morning, and tons of people were setting up for their BBQs and etc. There were big official signs stating "NO ALCOHOL. NO FIREWORKS." My companion says to me, "Shit. What the fuck good is the Fourth of July if you can't get drunk and blow yourself up?"

Anonymous said...

My parents instilled in me a skeptical attitude toward American hyper-patriotism. My mother was originally from Nova Scotia and her family was driven out of the U.S. during the Revolution for supporting King George. My father was a first-generation German-American who recalled seeing the lynching of an effigy of Kaiser Bill when he was a kid in Detroit.

But no matter its faults, America has done a lot of good for a lot of disparate groups of people, and I revel in its infinite variety, its basic optimism, pragmatism, and can-do attitude. On this fourth of July, I hope that the best is yet to come for America, and I am grateful to be a citizen of this great nation.


HistoryMaven said...

Having spent the July 4 weekend in Ohio (where I was born and where I lived for some time), I can confirm TR's characterization of Buckeye civic culture. Home town parades in NE Ohio feature everyone, so much so that neighboring townspeople more often than not are "enlisted" as spectators. Jello molds? I didn't see at the county fair or the various picnics. But the return of the icebox cake--whipped cream, cookies, strawberries, and blueberries all in an appropriate patriotic pattern--is evident (if it ever really left these hyar parts).

As for my family: I live with a more recent history of immigration. (One aunt who gained citizenship in the 1950s proudly displays the flag a neighbor gave her; the barbecue that came with it has long gone to the scrapyard.) But it's a family story imbedded in ultranationalism that has tied me up in knots ever since I learned to think historically. And that ain't, really, a bad place to be.

Historiann said...

Notorious--as a native Ohioan, I will see what I can find in my mother's recipe file box. Consider it my effort to combat the rampant anti-European, anti-white bias on this blog.

As CPP (or should I call him CCCP?) suggests: fireworks used in close proximity to alcohol and accelerants is the red man's secret plan to destroy white Amerikkka. (Or at least blow off a few body parts.)

ish said...

I wandered over here from a link on "We Are Respectable Negroes" blogroll, and I'm enjoying what I'm reading. You might enjoy--though a couple of your commenters definitely won't--my own post on the Fourth of July about the anti-Indian sentence in the Declaration of Independence.