What to you is this celebration?

Sure, we celebrate many holidays here in the United States, but do all citizens feel included within those holidays and are we doing the history of each day—of all the events that built up to one day–justice? Even at first glance it seems the answer to this question is ‘no’. I hate to admit it, but until I came across this paper, I hadn’t thought about what the fourth of July would have meant for slaves or recently freed slaves back in the 1800’s and even today for people of color. As we discussed Frederick Douglass’ analysis of what the fourth of July means to him and his history within America, I began thinking about how applicable his sentiment is to contemporary society.

Shklar argued for the existence of two necessary pathways to gain citizenship: the right to vote and the right to earn. While, one may gain legal citizenship status once these two rights are gained—are you a full-fledged citizen if you don’t feel included in what the country is celebrating? After all, celebrations should reflect the values of a community. If the values which are being celebrated are not aligned with large portions of the citizenry, it may mean large portions of the citizenry do not feel truly included.

indigenous peoples dayReading Douglass’ account reminds us of how valuable a diverse reflection and perspective on the nation’s holidays can be even to this day. In fact, there are contemporary arguments for the infamous Columbus Day to be replaced with a more historically accurate Indigenous People’s Day. As Leo Killsback, and ASU professor, argues, “Columbus Day is not just a holiday, it represents the violent history of colonization in the Western hemisphere.” It is never just a holiday, it has implications based on the language used and the focus of the day. What would diverse American citizens, most likely those of minority populations, say about other American holidays—Thanksgiving for example.

The celebrations could improve in their accuracy of the representation of the historical events, while still allowing for a celebration. A rhetoric could be developed which allows for atrocities to not merely be glossed over and for celebration of our progress to still be acknowledged. It’s true we can move on and progress, but we can only do so properly if we truly know where we’ve been–the language used around national celebrations of history inform us of just that, where we’ve been.

Throughout the paper, Douglass uses language such as “your nation” and “this Fourth of July is yours, not mine”. How many citizens today are feeling pushed aside–oppressed by varying degrees–so much so that they feel as if this is “your nation”, but surely not theirs. Their nation would value them, their history and their family. The way we celebrate speaks to what is important to us. America could and should improve in how it celebrates its national holidays. First, we can turn to those of diverse lineage and perspective to ask them, “Do you resonate with Douglass’ words? Is this your nation?”



Footnote: Just as a side note, while I was researching Indigenous People’s Day, I came across an article written by a stark opponent of the day’s creation, Michael Graham (2017). If you glance over his article, he seems to use much of the rhetoric which concerned us in the Tocqueville text, painting indigenous populations as savage, cannibalistic and so on. View Graham’s (2017) article here: http://thefederalist.com/2017/10/09/indigenous-peoples-day-far-worse-columbus-day/

Leo Killsback’s remarks can be found here: http://www.history.com/news/goodbye-columbus-hello-indigenous-peoples-day



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13 Responses to What to you is this celebration?

  1. ennausa says:

    I find the subject of your post very interesting. I agree with you when you say that citizens do not generally feel included in holidays. Indeed, these holidays are often seen by most people as a day of rest and even more in the week but the celebration and events that have made this day a holiday is not important for them and is generally forgotten or ignored by all. Shklar could include in her definition of citizen the need to have knowledge and respect for the history of the country for example. In my opinion, big events like Thanksgiving, Christmas or September 11th have a special meaning for citizens and individuals because they know their signification. So, they do not forget them. The case of September 11 is a very good example. The majority of Americans remember that date and know what happened because of the horrific events that occurred that day. Nevertheless, other holidays are just as important and also have a specific meaning. Perhaps the lack of education and promotion from the country means that people forget the history of the country. Another possibility is that some people do not feel part of the Nation, just as Douglas gives the impression during his speech on July 4th.
    Education may be able to give individuals a clearer meaning about these holidays or certain events. Thus, it is possible that the feeling of belonging to the Nation is strengthened by this.

    • smoothjazz0317 says:

      I really found “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July” speech given by Frederick Douglass to be a very insightful read, and I agree that we should not become historical revisionists by eliminating the darker times of our history from being taught. Removing statues of Confederate officers is in my opinion an act of revisionism, removing a Christopher Columbus statue is much the same. Having said that I see no logical reason to compare the Fourth of July holiday to celebrating the birthday of Columbus. The fourth of July celebrates the struggle America had faced, and as Douglass so brilliantly speaks to, does not match what slaves and former slaves have to celebrate at the time the speech was given. It seems illogical to me to recognize a contested event by a very flawed human as worthy of a ‘celebration’.

  2. jackbuck1 says:

    I just have to say that I really enjoyed this piece of writing. I could not agree more that the USA needs to improve the way that holidays are celebrated. I think this has been an issue for a long time and just now getting some real traction. Douglass’s words to speak to a lot of different people from all walks of life. I think that his words all speak to people in other ways. It would be interesting to see a national poll of the question “is this nation yours?” The results would I am sure be surprising. I also think that they would be very depressing as well. I believe that we have a lost sense of what we are as a nation. We are a melting pot of culture. We do not do a good enough job of respecting the person next to us. I feel that we need to do better as a society, to work together for a more inclusive nation. To be able to respect the citizens that live within the USA would be a huge step forward. A lot of people right now do not feel respected nor heard. We pride ourselves in this country that everyone has a voice, but that is not the case. People right now feel left out and neglected. There is also a belief that our votes do not matter with the electoral college. Also there does seem to be a growing concern with our earnings in this country. I wonder what Shklar would say about the United States today if she could see it. Would she see a community that had a right to vote and a right to earn? I think that she would say no and that those rights are being forgotten by our government. We need to take a second look at what rights are being infringed upon.

    • smoothjazz0317 says:

      I found your post particularly good because it prompted so many interesting comments. Most stressed that America’s history should not be ‘white washed’ and I absolutely agree. Removing statues and not allowing some of the nation to display, or in some instances even own, symbols of their regional history because they offend people is ‘white washing’ history. Most of us would be willing to admit that there has been some ‘not so proud moments’ in our first 240 plus years, but would have to recognize that a lot of improvements have been made. George Washington’s birthday has a federal holiday that is celebrated as Presidents Day. Martin Luther King Jr. deservedly has a holiday. Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day are all holidays that celebrate the accomplishments or sacrifices of many. Thanksgiving, while initially misrepresenting the historical facts of the original one, has morphed into a day for families to celebrate what they are thankful for, and The Fourth of July celebrates America’s quest for independence that is not yet not shared by all, but certainly America has moved closer to equality than Frederick Douglass experienced.
      My question remains, how does Christopher Columbus deserve this honor? By all reliable accounts he was responsible for the slaughter of many hundreds indigenous people, many doubt that he even ‘discovered’ America. Leave his statue up, teach about his transgressions as well as his accomplishments, but really, a federal holiday?

  3. MeganLynde says:

    I recently watched the movie “The Adams Family” and there’s a scene where a camp of kids are re-enacting a “traditional Thanksgiving play,” where Native-Americans and pilgrims are breaking bread together. Suddenly, Wednesday Adams, dressed as a Native-American, went off script and began to criticize the holiday, and the group of actors dressed as Native-Americans began to renegade and disrupt the play, causing chaos on stage. Everyone in the audience was horrified to be confronted with reality. This scene had always had been very reminiscent to me of Thanksgiving and Christopher Columbus Day, and now to July 4th as well. Every year, we celebrate a white-washed reality of these holidays, discarding the ugly truth behind them. It’s funny to me that a country who won’t remove confederate statues or flags for fear of altering history, is so comfortable celebrating historically inaccurate holidays year after year. I don’t know if these traditions will ever change, simply because they’re a part of American tradition and they make big money for corporations. However, I think our education system is vital to dictating future attitudes regarding these holidays; and hope that we see more conversation around these traditions.

  4. dasboot01 says:

    I like this post since it invokes thought not just about our national holidays but also about every piece of American history. It’s true that our nation has no shortage of faults when dealing with minority groups and oppression as a whole. We have a holiday in Columbus Day (which is Indigenous People’s Day in some places in our country) where there is much controversy behind it. On one hand, there is a chance that America wouldn’t be where it is today without his contributions to exploration while on the other hand his appearance in the New World killed hundreds if not thousands of the natives. There are other examples of this in American society, do we maintain our Confederate monuments or remove them? Do we include books on slavery in high school classes or get rid of them do to offensive language?

    Regarding such controversial history, I don’t think there is a correct answer to these problems. I would like to argue on the premise that we should maintain our monuments, holidays, books, and whatever else reminds us of our ugly past since it stirs up debate like this. There was a clear problem in our history that we recognize and we shouldn’t run away from them and be scared to offend others. We as American’s should learn from our past and keeping around the ugly parts of our past is the best way to keep people informed in and interested which in turn progresses society.

    Bringing this all back to Douglass, there is definitely evidence that our country hasn’t been fair to minorities and there is clear oppression to these groups however one cannot reasonably tell me that there hasn’t been huge strides in progressiveness since the turn of the millennium. I think there is still a fear among Americans of all backgrounds that there hasn’t been significant social progress since we are so quick to look at the bad things from the media or from the past and we ignore what good things are going on around us.

  5. odessaclugston says:

    I think it’s an incredibly disturbing parallel that the United States continually celebrates the colonization of white men while completely ignoring the genocide of communities of color committed in the process. While some strides of progress have been made, such as ASU renaming the holiday “Indigenous Peoples Day”, we still have enormous steps to achieve equality for all people. I agree – this nation often feels as if it only belongs to certain individuals with certain characteristics. In a similar regard, Martin Luther King Jr. Day always reminds me of the distances that Arizona specifically has towards achieving equality. The only reason why the state adopted this federal holiday was so the state was eligible to host the Superbowl. Sports tournaments shouldn’t have to force a state to increase equality – basic human morals should be enough of an impetus.

  6. ghostcole says:

    Great post the part where you mention that citizens do not feel included in the holidays got me thinking a bit and I agree. When we think about holidays we are mainly hoping for a day off where we don’t have to go to work and can stay home or have an extra day of vacation. We have left the tradition of holidays behind and those traditions should be brought back. In some states the holidays are still celebrated with old traditions that brings people together but it is not seen in all states. More states should get involved in doing community activities because it helps brings everyone together. In my opinion here in Arizona there isn’t to many activities going on during the holidays and it is sad to see how come communities have a very low enthusiasm during the holidays. States like New York throw major community events during the holidays like parades where thousands gather to celebrate that specific day. When communities celebrate together it makes them stronger

  7. Landon says:

    Reading your post really has me thinking a lot deeper into the meaning of holidays that we celebrate here in the United States. Growing up you learn all of the traditions that your family has that could have possibly been passed down by generation. On the other hand there could be holidays celebrated in the way that society shows it as. Like a “traditional holiday” could have different meanings to everyone as stated in your post the 4th of July can have different meaning to it and if people really do feel the same independence and freedom than the person next to them. Also when you brought up Columbus Day I had never actually thought about the history and the meaning of what happened on that day and what other cultures had to endure, and how it should be called indigenous day. Every holiday means something different to every culture. I can understand where Douglass is coming from and his emotions towards the fourth of July. No one should be judged on how they interpret a holiday its a great thing about America and its what makes us a melting pot and our different views and ideas.

  8. manuelgama21 says:

    Hi! I think you make a really good point by adding Douglass perspective of citizenship to Shklar’s requirements of citizenship. While Shklar makes some really pragmatic definitions of citizenship this don’t seem enough to fully belong to a community. I agree with you that there are American traditions that should be revised to analyze what message they give to the people in this country. I feel that some of the points that you make somehow connect with the story we were talking about today, The Lottery. Columbus Day celebrated the “discovery” of the American continent as if this was a positive event, completely evading the fact that this event was followed by centuries of colonialism that completely changed the composition of the country and that left the indigenous population is a very low position in a new social hierarchy where they were severely oppressed. The fact that this is still seem uncritically by a lot of people in this continent shows how traditions can be sometimes easily accepted, just as in Jackson’s story.

  9. Daniel Rubio says:

    I think this is a very interesting case study in the current state of our culture regarding the holidays. It certainly seems like one of the issues this nation faces is how to best incorporate members of society who, similar to Shklar’s argument feel alienated from their own country. We have to represent and incorporate those who feel alienated and build a modern American identity. I remember during the GOP primary debates this past election cycle, a common phrase that came up was something along the lines of “We’re not white nor black, but American”. As a patriot, I love that sentiment but when minority groups in this country still face racism and structural setbacks we cannot just use that line as an excuse to brush these very real issues away. We cannot whitewash our problems and history away, but at the same time we need to build a more inclusive cultural narrative for the country. French President Macron had a really interesting bit in a recent Der Spiegel article where he laments the contemporary dissection of every “grand narrative” as he says: “But we need to be amenable once again to creating grand narratives. If you like, post-modernism was the worst thing that could have happened to our democracy. The idea that you have to deconstruct and destroy all grand narratives is not a good one.”
    So I think there’s a balance between scrapping every bit of the national mythos of our country and having a unifying narrative that everyone regardless of sex, color, or creed can be a stakeholder in. I saw a YouTube video a while back discussing the musical “Hamilton” a while back, and discussing criticisms that the actors were not white like the actual founding fathers were. The premise of the video is that much of our ideas surrounding the Founders are a bit of an American Mythology anyways, and that it is a good idea to make adjustments to this mythos to allow more Americans to feel like stakeholders in our society. That’s a premise I heavily agree with, and although I think it can apply heavily to holidays.

    Der Spiegel Article: http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/interview-with-french-president-emmanuel-macron-a-1172745.html

    YouTube video The Founding Fathers Aren’t White Anymore: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pv6iejNVMlQ

  10. Lydia Chew says:

    Thank you for your post! I definitely agree that, in addition to there being some holidays that do not represent the entire American community, Americans often also do not understand the significance of certain days. For example, I know that when I was in grade school, I didn’t understand why November 11 was a federal holiday—I just knew it as a day off from school. (In fact, I distinctly remember thinking, “why isn’t it 9/11 instead of 11/11?”) Similarly, the significance behind Memorial Day and Labor Day often go unexplained, and usually completely foregone.

    The fourth of July, on the other hand, is typically on the opposite end of the spectrum. You’d be hard-pressed to find Americans who don’t celebrate the popular summer holiday, with the festivities consisting of a barbecue, beer, and fireworks. This trope of a dad flipping burgers at a family gathering while the kids play in the backyard is the “all-American image”—but should it be? There’s nothing wrong, per say, with these traditions, but when July 4th becomes all play, it almost cheapens the holiday and removes it from a historical context that is so incredibly important to our country’s foundation.

  11. Pingback: The Case for a Common American Mythos | American Political Thought

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