Fourth of July

Yeah, it’s the sixth already, but here’s a comment about the parade that I just posted on Lucian K. Truscott IV’s Substack (to which I subscribe and where I frequently comment).

I live in a small town on the largest island off the coast of Massachusetts. Monday afternoon I marched in the Fourth of July parade in the next town over, helping carry the banner for the island’s Democratic Council. Some of us wore black armbands that said ROE on them. Others carried signs that said JANUARY 6: REMEMBER IN NOVEMBER. The Democratic candidate for Cape & Islands DA and his family marched with us. (If you vote in our region, remember his name: Rob Galibois.) We danced and sang along to an awesome soundtrack created by one of our members — belting out the words to the Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers” was especially satisfying.

Just ahead of us was the “best in show” float for Pond View Farm, packed with tie-dye-shirted kids tossing candy to the spectators (a local tradition). Behind us was the Vineyard Peace Council, with a sign that said “War is still not the answer.” According to one of the local papers, more than a thousand people were in the parade and an estimated 25,000 crowded the sidewalks, porches, and balconies to see us pass by. The weather was perfect.

It was our first Fourth of July parade since the beginning of Covid-19. It was the last where no one thought for a minute that a shooter might cut loose with a high-powered semiautomatic rifle.

From left, Carol Koury, me, Patty Blakesley, and Ann Hollister in Edgartown’s Fourth of July parade, 1995.

I think the last time I marched in or even attended Edgartown’s Fourth of July parade was in 1995, the 75th anniversary of the League of Women Voters. I wasn’t a League member but three of my friends were. We marched together wearing suffragist colors. The sign says DEMOCRACY IS NOT A SPECTATOR SPORT, a slogan that is even more timely now than it was then. Maybe if more of us had been paying more attention then, we wouldn’t be in the morass we’re in now.

So much has happened since that we couldn’t have imagined then.

In the days before the Fourth I heard (or read) many people saying that this year they didn’t feel like celebrating the nation’s birthday. Maybe because I came of political age during the Vietnam War, which in my 18th year bled into the Nixon administration, I have never thought of the Fourth as a birthday party. Some years I’d go watch fireworks with friends, but more often I’d stay home and try to keep the resident dog from freaking out at the noise. (Rhodry hated fireworks. Trav was mostly OK with them, and Tam barely notices the noise.)

I started taking the Fourth personally the first year I got to participate in a local community reading of Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” masterminded by Abigail McGrath of Renaissance House and the amazing Makani Themba. That was eight or nine years ago, and I’ve done it every year since (except for the year it didn’t happen). It was at the Inkwell, a stretch of beach in Oak Bluffs that has long been special to the African-American community. In 2020 and 2021, thanks to Covid, each of us recorded our own segments and from them Michelle Vivian-Jemison of MVTV created the speech on video. This year we returned to the Inkwell, and you can watch the recording here:

These times we’re living through give me clues about what it must have been like to be living in the 1850s. Douglass gave his speech in 1852. In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which gave Southern slaveholders and their agents to invade Northern free states in search of their escaped “property.” Now, in 2022, states that are outlawing abortion are talking of doing something similar: prosecuting women who go elsewhere to obtain abortion services, and even the health-care personnel who assist them.

In 1854 Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which undermined the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and left the question of slave or free up to “the people” (i.e., white male voters) in the new western states. Slavery supporters poured into Kansas to ensure that Kansas would become another slave state. The result was “Bleeding Kansas,” a period of violent conflict between the opponents and supporters of slavery that heralded the civil war to come.

As the 1850s went on, more and more USians came to acknowledge that the fissures dividing the nation could no longer be papered over. I hope against hope that the Trump administration, the January 6 insurrection, and the recent Supreme Court decisions have moved more and more of us to the same conclusion. It’s impossible not to notice that the Trump-supporting, abortion-outlawing “red states” include virtually all of the old Confederacy, and that the belief in white male Christian supremacy links the 1850s to our own decade.

To those who didn’t feel like celebrating the Fourth this year, I give you Frederick Douglass’s words:

Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.

I hear that as a reminder and challenge: that USians of the 1850s had hard choices to make, they made them, and that after a bloody, bloody civil war the nation expanded to include the formerly enslaved. The enslavers fought back, of course, and eventually they got their way: they replaced slavery with Jim Crow, and used the U.S. Congress to impose their priorities on the rest of the country. In the 1960s their supremacy went into remission, but in the beginning of the 1980s it came roaring back and it’s only gotten worse in the decades since.

So here we are. We have hard choices to make, and the longer we delay, the harder the choices will get. The word “choice” has long been shorthand for reproductive choice, the right to choose abortion, but now so much more is at stake, starting with the right to choose our representatives, the right to learn U.S. history, the right to organize for a fair wage and safe working conditions, the right to live and let live. Will we rise to the occasion, as Frederick Douglass and so many others have, starting with the founders in 1776?

It’s your choice. My choice. Our choice. Choose.

Women’s rights advocates hang out with “Senator Elizabeth Warren” as we wait for the Fourth of July parade to start.

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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2 Responses to Fourth of July

  1. Ellen T. Miller says:

    Good piece Susanna and good points. Thank you for sending. 

    Ellen T. MillerP. O. Box 4456Vineyard Haven, MA, 02568508-693-7846*************************************It’s time to put the “civil” back in civilization…

    Like

    • Thanks, Ellen! Btw, I spotted SOUTH DAKOTA in Edgartown while walking from the parking lot @ Edgartown Hardware to the school. 🙂 It was in a driveway, not just parked, so I’m wondering if it’s the same one Tom H. saw. (I hardly ever notice the vehicle — just the plate!)

      Like

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