Broad Stripes and Bright Stars

31/7/2020

“I don’t know what to expect,” I warned her beforehand.

 

My partner and I visited my family for the 4th of July, America’s Independence Day. They’d all met K before, and love her. It’s not them I was worried about. It’s that they live in the Midwest — South Dakota, to be exact — a place known for its conservatism, patriotism, and religiosity. K was sure to be the only black person at any gathering, and together we’d be the only openly queer individuals. We’d be staying in small, middle-of-nowhere towns (cell phone service not guaranteed), each populated by no more than a few hundred people. My uncle, a Republican and ex-Marine, is one of the best people I know, and I knew he wouldn’t allow anyone to harm or disrespect us during our trip in his presence, but with other people, it’s tough to tell. The Midwestern way is generally being polite and minding one’s own business, so standing up or speaking up for someone isn’t so common, and the previous occasions when we’d encountered bigotry (from a pastor once, a relative’s spouse another time) hadn’t been pleasant. The point of the 4th of July is to celebrate an ideal of America and the beliefs surrounding it — beliefs that don’t always include tolerance — and there was no telling who we might encounter, how they’d behave, or how we’d be received. The only guarantees, I told K, were burgers and beer, watermelon and Weezer.

Wilmot, South Dakota, my grandparents’ hometown

***

“There are scenes and places, wattages and personages, that belong — inextricably, unmistakably — to this country alone. There is an American quality, a tone, an energy…instantly recognizable.”

— Hampton Sides, Americana: Dispatches from the New Frontier

In summer, the so-called “flyover states” are a gorgeous landscape of farmland: an endless sea of cornstalks and soybeans, with steeples and barns dotting the horizon alongside grazing cows and steely silos. The humid warmth rolls over you like a blanket, and open horizons make for spectacular sunsets. My childhood summers were spent at my grandparents’ farm, a homestead that’s been in the family for decades, and my introduction to both selfhood and Americana were inextricably intertwined. Even now, years after leaving, it’s nearly impossible for me to untangle the two. As much as my landscape has changed since then — I’ve called California’s desert “home” for a decade — my childhood was tractor rides and baking bread, and my heart rises when I see the sloping hills of America’s heartland.

My grandparents’ farm

In adulthood, though, I’m uncertain whether who I’ve become has a place there anymore, at least not to the extent that I could move back there and live. My partner and I may as well be a circus act for all the stares we get as a walking double anomaly of interracial queerness. It’s one thing to stand out for our aesthetic, or our vegan tendencies and yoga pants, and quite another for the fact that we don’t share the religious beliefs of most residents here. Coming from Los Angeles, we may as well be visiting a different country.

My grandma and K, on the farm

This year, our visit to South Dakota coincided not only with America’s birthday, but with a visit from the president himself. On the evening of the 3rd, we gathered in the living room of my grandparents’ farmhouse to watch Donald Trump’s speech at the local monument of Mt Rushmore, where the faces of four US presidents are carved into the stony face of a mountain. As he began, K and I realized we’ve never actually listened to him give a full speech before, and we watched in fascination.

US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump at Mt Rushmore on the 3rd of July (Picture Credit: The White House)

Nearly everything he said was met with fervent cheers, and on more than a few occasions the entire crowd chanted in unison: “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” Trump vaguely referenced current events, citing “angry mobs,” people who think Americans are “weak, soft, and submissive.” He decried this, and the applause and chanting broke out again. He talked about sending federal troops to arrest rioters. He spoke of setting history’s record straight, and proceeded to give an account of each of the men carved into the mountain, making special note of those who had a hand in abolishing slavery. He proclaimed the importance of Christian values, family, winning and losing, defeating bad guys, and apple pie. That last item isn’t real — he didn’t mention any desserts — but he may as well have, for how closely he followed the mythos of an America so many in this country cherish. The crowd ate it up.

 

He spoke about the US being a land of heroes, heroes that “only America could’ve produced,” and proceeded to list a handful of such figures: slaveholders, people who worked hard to destroy Native American rights and territories (Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant) alongside a handful of black celebrities like Muhammad Ali and Louis Armstrong. “How do you talk about great figures in America,” K spoke, “and not mention any Native Americans? When you’re on their land? How do you do that?” She meant this rhetorically, but it is telling (although not, unfortunately, surprising) that in a speech about America’s history and legacy — made in the Black Hills, no less, which is considered sacred Native territory — he didn’t even mention one indigenous person.

 

In the fireworks show that followed, we couldn’t help but raise our eyebrows at some of the music chosen to signify patriotism. Take, for instance, the lyrics Toby Keith sings in his post-9/11 song “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” on how America promises to deal with her enemies: “This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage / you’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A. / we’ll put a boot in your ass / it’s the American way.” The song goes on to applaud success via military force with, “We lit up your world / like the 4th of July,” and as we listened, our eyes rounded and we whispered to each other in the dark: “Oh my god, oh my god!

 

As the spectacle reached its end, we started critiquing (innocuously, we thought) the camera angles, which made my grandfather flare, insisting it had been “a great show.” We didn’t say it wasn’t, we responded. “But it would’ve been better if they had zoomed out,” we insisted. “So we could’ve seen the whole picture.”

***

“Government has nothing to do with real patriotism. Patriotism is a love of the place and the people who have shaped your heart and mind, not your willingness to die for oil or, as Napoleon said ‘for those baubles pinned on the chests of dead soldiers.’”

— Joe Pageant

On the 4th, we headed to my uncle’s lake house. The day was about as American a dreamscape as you could get: cousins, beer, and boating. Pulled pork was consumed alongside blue vodka slushies. We headed out onto the lake in my uncle’s speedboat, and I managed to convince K to try water tubing (“this has got to be the whitest thing ever,” she muttered, but obliged) and swimming in the algae-filled waters. When we tired of tubing, we drifted quietly in the middle of the river, some of us swimming, others sunbathing on the back of the boat.

 

Returning to shore, some people we didn’t know had arrived, and I was initially on alert, although they quickly proved to be sweet and friendly. K endured the inevitable awkward stabs at conversation: “You have such nice skin,” and “I just wish I could tan like that,” but that’s as uncomfortable as it got. (Everyone we met on that trip wanted to talk to her about tanning.) As a couple, we got some curious, though not unfriendly looks, and I’d even go as far as to say there was warmth directed at us. In any case, any unease was quickly undercut by a round of tequila shots.

Returning to shore, some people we didn’t know had arrived, and I was initially on alert.

Inside the house, I wrapped myself in a furry grey blanket and nodded off, still damp with lake water. Next to me, a cousin played folk rock on a guitar and sang the words to every song. I woke an hour or two later, a thin line of drool beneath my chin. When I found K reading on the cabin deck outside, she proudly informed me: “I played Hammerschlagen!” She was referring to a country game of hammering a nail into a board with the wrong side of the tool. “I lost,” she said, but I could tell from her grin that she enjoyed the experience.

 

As the sunlight faded, I walked down to the dock to watch the sunset spilling over the lake. Neighboring cabins set off firecrackers while I dangled my legs over the water. My cousin came down to join me. “So, Mt Rushmore,” he offered. “Blow it up: Yay or nay?”

 

“Nay,” I answered. I understand removing statues of colonizers, I said. I get the significance. But I’m not sure what blowing up Mt Rushmore would accomplish, other than further traumatize land that’s already been drastically transformed. It’s not always a bad thing to be reminded of our history, either, I told him, even if that history is uncomfortable or at odds with what we want or believe today. And (admittedly this is where my argument becomes feeble) years of work and artistry went into the carving, and at the very least, it’s a pretty stunning feat of sculpture.

K joined the conversation and took it a step further, saying she can understand why people would be upset about any statue being torn down. “Somebody’s father fought for that general, or somebody is a descendant of that captain, and they’re proud of their ancestor on the basis that they fought for what they believed in.” She argued that there are those who don’t see those men as problematic but as their legacy. “They were somebody’s hero,” she said, and if I want to step outside the “us vs. them” mentality to see the grey, I can’t disagree.

“Somebody’s father fought for that general, or somebody is a descendant of that captain, and they’re proud of their ancestor on the basis that they fought for what they believed in.”

When I got home, though, I looked up the history of the Black Hills where the monument stands and learn how it was promised to Natives by our government, “in perpetuity,” until gold was discovered in the mountains and the greed of our capitol outweighed the integrity of its promises. I changed my mind. Tear it down, burn it up, do what you will — but let the native tribespeople decide. Give it back. In Great White Fathers, a history of Mt Rushmore, John Taliaferro wrote that perhaps America’s narrative of self-made success is less accurate than the fact “that it’s our very selfishness…primal in its drive for self-advancement” that is, in fact, “the building block of our red-white-and-blue civilization.”

***

“The fathers of this republic…loved their country better than their own private interests; and, though this is not the highest form of human excellence, all will concede that it is a rare virtue, and that when it is exhibited it ought to command respect.”

— Frederick Douglass

The rest of our trip was a blur of beef stew, baking lessons, and visiting relatives. By the time we returned home, we’d fallen in love with the countryside, the quiet, and the accompanying peace. K let me know she had the time of her life, and we talked about when we’d return.

 

The streaming platform Disney+ released its recording of the staged musical Hamilton over the holiday weekend, and we watched it, relishing the irony of its multi-ethnic cast playing historical figures who, more often than not, owned slaves. We watched them rap and beatbox a narrative of America’s founding through the lens of one complex individual; an imperfect, often self-serving man who put both himself and his country first, who loved his family even as he destroyed it, whose passion and charisma lifted him up and shaped this country’s financial system, before eventually displacing and destroying him.

 

While I’ve always felt uneasy with and alienated from the concept of patriotism, preferring the love of people to the love of place, I can’t deny the particular spell of visiting somewhere I’m connected to by blood. To love a country better than one’s own private interests, as Douglass said, is a curious idea, and I’m sure there are some who purport to do so, but I’m skeptical of any human being who denies self-interest as a primary motivating force. Did America’s founding fathers really love this land above all, or were they, too, merely out for themselves? After all, what drove their fight other than desire — for certain rights, freedoms, opportunities, or sovereignty? “Love of country” sounds noble in theory, but in reality it’s used to condone war in the name of protection, genocide in the name of freedom, and religious oppression in the name of God.

Did America’s founding fathers really love this land above all, or were they, too, merely out for themselves?

Our national histories are as complex as the men who shaped them, and to deny that is to deny our personal histories, our own complexity, and our own humanity. We were never meant to sit back simply because one height was scaled, but to continue evolving and reimagining what we want our world to look like and how we want to get there. As Martin Luther King said, “Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.” It’s simplistic and false to assume otherwise, to rest on old laurels and assume that one can definitely, once and for all, “win a state of freedom that is protected forever. It doesn’t work that way.”

 

In my own imagining of our country’s future, I consider what might happen if we move “love of country” from the top of our priority list, and allow a new creed to take its place: love of one’s neighbor. Not only the neighbor down the street or two farms over, but all who inhabit the same planet as us, no matter what borders or walls (real or planned) stand in between. I don’t mean the easy love of a muttered prayer, either, but the kind of love I’ve learned from America’s heartland: the kind that shows up with a baked pie in one hand and a hand-stitched quilt in the other.

 

In his 1939 essay pondering the identity of this country’s citizens, journalist Raoul de Roussy de Sales wrote, “Faith in America is what makes them Americans.” In the last hours of the night of the 4th, the crowd of family and neighbors gathered near the lake’s edge to set off fireworks of our own. Each time a firework burst in the air in a flurry of colorful sparks, one of the men sitting in a pickup bed next to us shouted “U.S.A.!” with everything in him, and I couldn’t help but cringe. My faith in this country has been flickering for years, even as its soil defines me.

Me on the 4th of July (Picture Credit: Katrina Joli)

When we reached the “grand finale” — when a steady and relentless stream of spectacular explosives is set off in quick succession to create a climax — everyone in our group began shouting together: “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” Without skipping a beat, and with great enthusiasm, K joined in, fist raised in the air. Our eyes met and I raised my eyebrows at her, as if to say, “Really?” She shrugged, smiled, and said, just before continuing to chant, “I’m in.”

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