Thoughts Upon Visiting My 50th State on the Fourth of July
Updated: Jul 3
This past weekend, I visited my 50th state. A few things to get out of the way first before I get to what I really want to talk about:
I’ve noticed that folks sometimes have opinions about what “counts” and what doesn’t, and so for the record these were my criteria:
1. Airport layovers don’t count.
2. Unlike some purists, however, I do not require having spent at least one night in the state. (Were I to employ that standard I would still lack North Dakota, Mississippi, and Alabama. Have mercy on me, Purists, and please give me a pass on this point.)
3. If claiming a state by “driving it,” a significant portion of a state must have been traversed and at least one stop made (not a problem for me given the size of my bladder).
Two years ago I got to Alaska, and last year I got Oregon. The only state remaining was Utah, so my husband Jeffrey made a plan for us to visit Dinosaur National Monument this past weekend. I would check off my 50th state, get to geek out over geology, and we’d have a nice, socially-distanced Fourth.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way…
While I celebrated my milestone and was happy to post the obligatory picture on social media, it also felt a little strange – not in spite of it taking place on the Fourth of July but because of it. I haven’t been feeling very patriotic these days, and I’m starting to feel like there’s less and less to celebrate on the Fourth. All of this got me thinking about my “accomplishment” in a very different light. Like the Fourth of July itself, my having traversed the entirety of our country became filled with contradictions.
On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass delivered an incredible speech – one of his most famous, it turns out (though of course I’d never heard of it). I first came across this speech in the context of some articles last week about whether or not to keep the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C.: Douglass spoke at the dedication of that monument (in 1876), and excerpts from the 1852 speech were also referenced in media articles. It was only upon seeking out the full text of that speech did I discover that it was delivered decades earlier. But understanding this context does not make the 1852 speech any less powerful. (The dedication speech, made in the presence of many prominent Black leaders and President U.S. Grant, was also a powerful and no-holds-barred speech and is definitely worth checking out. You can do so here.)
In light of my mixed feelings about my 50th state, I decided I needed to listen to Douglass, who did not shy away from declaring injustice and inhumanity, from identifying the ways in which the Founders fell short, while at the same time finding goodness and hope in the ideals they articulated. I don’t find his words comforting, but rather challenging. And I discovered a profound wisdom regarding our nation’s myriad contradictions, which in turn brought me some clarity regarding my own conflicted thoughts. I quote that speech here at length not to appropriate a Black man’s words for my own purposes, or to quote them in order to make myself feel better or justify complacency, but rather to listen to them. To learn from them. To help hold myself accountable and share them with you in hopes that you will do the same. Douglass’s words are every bit as true today as they were 168 years ago, and if you’ve been feeling a large dose of “WTF” regarding the Fourth, I hope you can find something here to challenge yourself, just as I have. (You can read the full text of his speech here.)
On the 2d of July, 1776, the old Continental Congress, to the dismay of the lovers of ease, and the worshipers of property, clothed that [alarming and revolutionary] idea with all the authority of national sanction. They did so in the form of a resolution; and as we seldom hit upon resolutions, drawn up in our day whose transparency is at all equal to this, it may refresh your minds and help my story if I read it. “Resolved, That these united colonies are, and of right, ought to be free and Independent States; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown; and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, dissolved.”
Citizens, your fathers made good that resolution. They succeeded; and to-day you reap the fruits of their success. The freedom gained is yours; and you, therefore, may properly celebrate this anniversary. The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history — the very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny.
I made my first substantial road trip, from my parents’ house in upstate New York to my summer geology field camp in Red Lodge, Montana, the summer of 1985. I was 20 years old and a rising Junior in college. I had a beat-up hand-me-down of a car with no air conditioning and a tent to use for camping along the way.
My first night’s stop was at a campground near Presque Isle Park in Erie, PA, and I was filled with the romance of a solo road trip across the America. I wrote the following in my journal: I have set up my camp and am enjoying the feeling of excitement and adventure as I start this trip through the heart of America, alone, myself, free.
That night there was a horrific storm. Lightning crashed right in the camp, shaking the ground with explosions of light and deafening sound. I was so unnerved that I fled my tent and spent the rest of the night in my car, hoping its frame would at least partially protect me if the storm brought a tree down on top of me or lightning struck. I’d never been so terrified.
It’s only in looking back at it that I see this episode as a stark metaphor for my place as a white person in America.
Ever notice when discussing armed conflicts with indigenous Americans in our history books, “battles” are for when the whites prevailed and “massacres” are for when they didn’t? Racial supremacy makes great use of language in perpetuating itself.
Back in school, when were taught about “Manifest Destiny,” the concept was taught very subtly: while my teachers acknowledged that this was a particularly Euro-centric view of our purpose as a nation, they nevertheless tacitly endorsed that view by embracing what it created: a single country spanning “sea to shining sea.” A single country uniting a staggering diversity of land types, climates, people, and resources. That all of those things could be brought together within a single national entity was something to be proud of – “the greatest country that had ever lived.” So for the 20-year old me, my great American road trip was a symbol of that, a tribute to our greatness.
I remember, also, that, as a people, Americans are remarkably familiar with all facts which make in their own favor. This is esteemed by some as a national trait — perhaps a national weakness. It is a fact, that whatever makes for the wealth or for the reputation of Americans, and can be had cheap! will be found by Americans. I shall not be charged with slandering Americans, if I say I think the American side of any question may be safely left in American hands.
When I talk to folks who have never driven large distances across our country I tell them there are two things that strike you. The first is just how freakin’ huge it is. This is especially true for someone who grew up on the east coast: you simply can’t appreciate the vastness of the country, especially as you go out west and it’s just miles upon miles of openness and where the geology frequently affords views of 100+ miles. The only way to grasp the scope of it all is to traverse it on the ground.
The second thing that strikes me is how each region has its own flavor, its own “style,” if you will. Though as our country becomes more mobile and folks become less and less rooted to their home towns, we’re losing those regional differences in food, language, and social conventions. I liked those differences; their disappearance is a loss for us as a nation.
Still, taken together, these two traits are central, defining characteristics of what it means to be “American.” The only other countries I can think of that might rival us in vastness and diversity of regions would be Russia or China, but those countries (so I told myself in my youth) were created by brute force and held together by oppression. Only America was and is held together by the mutual “assent of the people.” That made us unique, special, with characteristics that are to be celebrated.
Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in perpetual remembrance. I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost. From the round top of your ship of state, dark and threatening clouds may be seen. Heavy billows, like mountains in the distance, disclose to the leeward huge forms of flinty rocks! That bolt drawn, that chain broken, and all is lost. Cling to this day — cling to it, and to its principles, with the grasp of a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight.
During my 1985 drive I visited Mt. Rushmore. And I wrote this: For all the times I’ve seen ads and photos of Mt. Rushmore, there’s no substitute for actually seeing it. It was truly awe-inspiring. From the viewing terrace a half-mile away, you can gaze up at those eternal faces and read four large displays quoting each of the four. I was deeply moved to read Jefferson’s words while looking up at that face, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” I don’t think I’ve ever felt so strong about the American ideals that these Presidents represented. And I’m pretty sure I’ve never cried in public before.
I cringe reading those words today. I didn’t know that Mt. Rushmore was intentionally carved out of a mountain that was sacred to indigenous peoples. I didn’t understand the agenda behind creating that memorial at that location. I was a huge Jefferson fan in those days, too. I knew he had held slaves, but I was fascinated by his “renaissance man” sensibilities, sensibilities I shared. I conveniently skipped over the epic contradictions of a man who is presented as wise, kind, and an intellectual giant…while enslaving his fellow human beings and who, unlike some of his fellow Founders, refused to free his slaves so he could maintain an otherwise unsustainable lifestyle of leisure and study. I glossed over all of that by employing that old chestnut of “not applying the standards of our time to the past.” In my privilege and ignorance, I believed that the American ideal was not just an ideal, it was real – inconvenient facts notwithstanding.
So rather than weep tears of joy and pride, I should have wept tears of grief for how we’ve perverted that American ideal in the cause of greed and racial superiority. How do we reconcile these things? Is it possible to honor the good in what the Founders stood for without erasing the bad?
[Your fathers] were great men too — great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were “final;” not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation. Their solid manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these degenerate times. How circumspect, exact and proportionate were all their movements! How unlike the politicians of an hour! Their statesmanship looked beyond the passing moment, and stretched away in strength into the distant future. They seized upon eternal principles, and set a glorious example in their defense. Mark them!
In the fascinating book, How the States Got Their Shapes (Smithsonian Books, 2008), author Mark Stein describes the many machinations of defining our nation’s borders. For instance, when Britain and the U.S. were figuring out where the Canadian border should be, they arrived at the 49th parallel. Why not the 50th? Because this would restrict Britain’s access to the Great Lakes. Why are the western states drawn with straight lines that result in those big squares? Well, way back when Louisiana was acquired Jefferson had proposed a handy formula for carving up the territory into future states, the proportions of which would be two degrees of height and four degrees of width. Though that particular formula was never used, the underlying principle was: new states should be equal in size. Meanwhile, the straight lines that extend westward from Virginia and North Carolina go back to the first colonial land grants, which extended west indefinitely; later on, those lines were extended in various “compromises” regarding which states could continue slavery and which ones couldn’t.
The more you read about how the states got their shapes, the more one thing becomes absolutely clear: the lines were drawn to suit the political and economic interests of those drawing the lines (i.e., white, European Americans). They were not interested in natural boundaries (rivers, mountains), since all of nature was theirs to exploit. And they certainly were not interested in the territories of the indigenous people they were displacing. These lines are markers of conquest, carefully calculated expressions of the interests of those in power and invested in the status quo.
I say [this] with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.
The more I have spent time visiting these many states, the more I see these lands and borders and regional differences as a history not of greatness, but one of imperialism. Right from the get-go, Europeans arrived here with the idea that it was their Divine right to exploit the land and people they discovered for their own gains. If the people already here resisted, they were to be eliminated. But the simple brutality of that truth has never been acknowledged by us as a country; we remain unreconciled to the contradiction of a country built on conquest, genocide, and slavery on the one hand, and the founding principles that all are created equal on the other. Such a reckoning would be uncomfortable for most of us, and so we conveniently gloss it over or even actively resist it. Either way, we turn a blind eye to the truth. Visit Plymouth Rock as a tribute to those who landed there? Celebrate Columbus Day? Really? And so what do we do with the Fourth of July?
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 sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, 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 these United States, at this very hour.
While on the road this past weekend we saw a truck with two flags: an American flag and a Confederate Battle flag. And I wondered how on earth these people reconciled these things in their minds. How ironic is it that those who most passionately claim their devotion to the United States could also glorify a country that fought against it? Yes, of course it’s really racism dressed up as some sort of twisted patriotism, but the cold truth is that this is merely an extreme expression of the denial that we all share.
Washington could not die till he had broken the chains of his slaves. Yet his monument is built up by the price of human blood, and the traders in the bodies and souls of men shout — “We have Washington to our father.” — Alas! that it should be so; yet so it is.
America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery — the great sin and shame of America!
If you’ve ever talked with someone who escaped Communist Europe or someone who came here from Southeast Asia to build a new life for themselves and their children, the emotions they feel about coming to America are palpable. Try telling them that the American ideal is a sham. Try telling a veteran of WWII that they died for a lie. I wouldn’t try to do that, because I don’t believe it. At the same time, many (probably most) Union soldiers who fought to keep the country together held racist beliefs; did that make them no better than their Confederate counterparts? Lincoln freed the slaves and won the Civil War, yet that hardly meant he held those slaves in benevolence. How to we make sense of this?
It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man. He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery. His arguments in furtherance of this policy had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race. To protect, defend, and perpetuate slavery in the states where it existed Abraham Lincoln was not less ready than any other President to draw the sword of the nation. He was ready to execute all the supposed guarantees of the United States Constitution in favor of the slave system anywhere inside the slave states. He was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty, though his guilty master were already in arms against the Government. The race to which we belong were not the special objects of his consideration. Knowing this, I concede to you, my white fellow-citizens, a pre-eminence in this worship at once full and supreme. First, midst, and last, you and yours were the objects of his deepest affection and his most earnest solicitude. You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstances and necessity. (“Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln,” April 14, 1876)
These comments from 1876 truly penetrated me: the idea that, even when advancing the cause of equality and the ending of slavery, Lincoln was doing so for his own reasons. How that is true for all of us whose ancestors came here from Europe! Even when the results are positive, the “American ideal” is a construct, an abstraction. The reality of our national identity is rooted in something far more self-centered. For many, it has never really existed at all. I consider myself to be “patriotic.” I believe in the ideals stated in our founding documents. I believe in the cause of freedom. I believe that those ideals are worth dying for. But how does one recognize the blood and servitude that made the nation possible and still maintain a sense of “patriotism”? What does that word even mean anymore?
In grasping for a metaphor, the best I can come up with is to think of our country as a body that has a chronic cancer: destructive, toxic, and one that effects our collective brain, driving the body to act out its illness even as the body, sometimes, seeks to do good as well. The cancer has been with us from the very start – it is indeed at the very heart of who we are. How do we excise the disease? Is it even possible, given how fundamentally it is woven into our very existence? And if it’s not possible, then how do we reconcile these opposing forces? How do we tip the balance towards fulfilling our ideals and away from the destructive forces of our national character?
There is consolation in the thought that America is young. Great streams are not easily turned from channels, worn deep in the course of ages. They may sometimes rise in quiet and stately majesty, and inundate the land, refreshing and fertilizing the earth with their mysterious properties. They may also rise in wrath and fury, and bear away, on their angry waves, the accumulated wealth of years of toil and hardship. They, however, gradually flow back to the same old channel, and flow on as serenely as ever. But, while the river may not be turned aside, it may dry up, and leave nothing behind but the withered branch, and the unsightly rock, to howl in the abyss-sweeping wind, the sad tale of departed glory. As with rivers so with nations.
I wrote my Dad the other day that I consider myself to be a “practical optimist,” somebody who wants to believe that most people are basically decent and that progress can be made…while also recognizing the evils of the world, the limitations of the human species, and the many barriers to moving forward. But I also wrote that I see very little these days to justify that optimism. And so I was particularly keen to get to the bottom of a statement towards the end of Douglass’s speech, in which he said, “Notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country.” He does not despair? How is that possible, given the state of our nation in 1852? And how can we, today, have any less despair? I look outward at my fellow citizens, and I despair at the ignorance, hatred, denial, and fear that drive our civil discourse. And I look inward and despair no less at my own ignorance, my own implicit bias, and how my privilege blinds me to these things. And who am I to gripe when my Black sisters and brothers have been dealing with this crap for centuries? What the hell do I have to despair over? It’s like that first night of my trip when the storm was crashing down on me: at the first sign of trouble, I was cowering in fear, despite having a tent, a car, and a cooler full of food and drink. How very White of me.
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. 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. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic, are distinctly heard on the other. The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet.
The American ideal is not reality. Nor is it a fiction. It is both…and neither. It’s a cliché to say that the American ideal is simply not realized yet. That may be true, but it’s too convenient. It lets white folks off the hook by implicitly saying, “Be patient; We’ll get there eventually,” when all we’re really doing is justifying our inaction. We have to acknowledge that the American ideal has always existed pretty much only for those to whom that ideal was given at birth. Of course, there are exceptions – that’s part of the American myth, too. But “exceptions” prove the rule – otherwise they would not be exceptions! To illustrate my point, consider this: yes, a poor black man from the south side of Chicago would become President…and look how many folks hated him for that.
So what does it mean to be a patriot? To quote my dear friend Rob Wolf, “We must own up to who we have been before we can be who we want to be.” Being a patriot starts with recognizing the hypocrisy of those who founded our nation, the endless ways we have desecrated the principles those founders espoused – even while sanctimoniously clamoring our support for them. It means standing up for freedom of all people, not just our citizens. And it means listening to those we’ve oppressed, and finding ways to heal the things we have said and done that have contributed to that oppression – however unwittingly or out of the best of intentions. Every one of us has a role in this.
The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.
This work will not be easy, but if Frederick Douglass can find reasons to be optimistic, then I need to check my self-pity, my guilt, and get to work. A patriot must do nothing less. Thank you, Mr. Douglass, for showing me how.