On this 4th of July, Independence Day in the United States, I wanted to share a few thoughts. First, Langston Hughes’s response to Walt Whitman.
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
Langston Hughes wrote other poems advocating for America to live up to its stated ideals. James Baldwin said, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” He also said, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”
Frederick Douglass wrote the powerful speech, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” NPR released a video of his descendants reading excerpts from the speech.
Rapper and Hamilton star Daveed Diggs performed this remix of Douglass’s speech that was created by artists W. Kamau Bell, Safia Elhillo, Idris Goodwin, Nate Marshall, Angel Nafis, Danez Smith, Pharoahe Monche, Carmonghne Felix, and Lauren A. Whitehead.
My husband and I watched Hamilton last night (like a lot of of the rest of the country), and I thought Aja Romano’s article at Vox offered a really nuanced critique of the musical. I definitely encourage you to read this article, whether you’re a fan of the musical or not.
Daveed Diggs plays Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton. Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant mind, the architect of some of the United States’ most glorious ideals; he wrote the Declaration of Independence and served as the third President of the United States. He also owned people, and DNA evidence is fairly conclusive on the fact that he fathered children with Sally Hemings, a woman he enslaved (and who was actually his sister-in-law, as his wife’s father was also her father), and held his own children in slavery until his death. He also wrote the following about Black people (you can read the whole text at this link; spellings are his original):
Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarfskin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? … Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.
He goes on like that at length, but you get the gist. It’s extraordinarily racist. Clint Smith has an excellent poem “Letter to Five of the Presidents Who Owned Slaves While They Were in Office”:
I think many people have difficulty with an expression of patriotism that includes critique. I see a lot of “love it or leave it.” Why can’t you love it and want it to be better, too?
Update, 3:14 PM: My husband made me aware of Drew Gardner’s American Descendants project from Smithsonian Magazine. I found the picture of Shannon LaNier, the descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, really striking. He has his ancestor’s brow. You can see it. I would include the picture here, but I’m not sure if that’s allowable under copyright, so I urge you to check it out on the site I linked. They also have a really interesting video about how Shannon LaNier’s portrait was created and another featuring a conversation between descendants of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass.