What to the slave is the fourth of July?

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America, perhaps now more than ever, finds herself in a tenuous political situation. As a nation we are a diversity of interests divided across political lines and socio-economic circumstances; in fact, America can hardly be considered one nation of united citizens. So what does the fourth of July mean to us? How is unity possible under such circumstances? Has the American experiment failed?

Perhaps America is most divided against herself because we have forgotten that it is an experiment in self-government, rather than a failsafe solution to suffering. In Federalist 1, Alexander Hamilton famously observed of this experiment that

it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind. This idea will add the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism, to heighten the solicitude which all considerate and good men must feel for the event.

Although his statement smacks of declarations previous to his own, (The shining city upon a hill imagery is taken from Jesus’ “sermon on the mount” and John Winthrop understood that America was to become this city) the sentiment is worth remembering, for it traces the burden borne by us Americans. Hamilton wisely declares that “if there is any truth” in this American exceptionalist rhetoric, that our conduct, whether good or bad, will either provide a great misfortune for mankind or will be considered an act of philanthropy for all men everywhere. It was once believed that America had the opportunity to act as a beacon that shines her light to all men in all places, is this still evident?

No man understood the irony of such exceptionalist rhetoric more than Frederick Douglass. Thus, on July 5th of 1852, as a free black man, he dared to ask the question “what to the slave is the fourth of July”? Given our precarious political situation, his answer is one that we will soon be reminded of in our media: “Your celebration is a sham…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”. Why did Douglass believe that our celebration was a sham? Did he see any hope that this nation may right her wrongs? Is there any hope today?

Twenty years later, Douglass would deliver another speech. His aged reflections provide the tonic to his more candid rhetoric. Despite his earlier reminder regarding the great irony of the Independence Day, he reminds us Americans why Hamilton’s experiment in self-government is worth saving and worthy of our devotion. He reminds us

Nothing can bring to man so much of happiness or so much of misery as man himself. Today he exalts himself to heaven by his virtues and achievements; to-morrow he smites with sadness and pain, by his crimes and follies. But whether exalted or debased, charitable or wicked; whether saint or villain, priest or prize fighter; if only he be great in his line, he is an unfailing source of interest, as one of a common brotherhood; for the best man finds in his breast the evidence of kinship with the worst, and the worst with the best. Confront us with either extreme and you will rivet our attention and fix us in earnest contemplation, for our chief desire is to know what there is in man and to know him at all extremes and ends and opposites, and for this knowledge, or the want of it, we will follow him from the gates of life to the gates of death, and beyond them.

So is Trump’s America worth saving? Although it often seems that we are one nation divided under God, America still provides the greatest opportunity for kinship with our fellow man and honest reflection upon the nature and virtues of humanity. Is there any nation more diverse than America? Is there any city that dares declare that it will act as example to the world as much as our own? How many localities in the world organize county fairs under the premise of fawning over livestock, only to band together with their fellow citizens over a funnel cake or a box of popcorn? How many in America, on the other hand? How many races have been welcomed into our country, despite our more recent shortcomings? In other countries are such conversations regarding the propriety of immigration even possible, or are such conversations settled before the debate may even take place? Despite our recent tendency to close our borders, how many students of different colors, origins, and religions still study under the same roofs of our schools and break bread at the tables at those school? How many of those schools provide that bread that is to be broken? How many millions would be willing to provide that bread for those students if the common fund was unwilling? How many Americans would be willing to fight and die to save those children if a second 9/11 were to occur? How many have made that high sacrifice? How have we forgotten?

America is imperfect; the Founding of our country is riddled with contradictions, and sadly some of our founders held slaves in bondage. Today in America, slavery is illegal, although it can be argued that certain forms of slavery still exist. However, I like to think that Frederick Douglass smiles happily upon this divided nation as it attempts to grapple and work through its contradictions through civil discourse and disobedience, however misguided it sometimes may seem. I like to think that were he here with us today, he would understand the great strides we have made to realize the principles of our Declaration and solidify the rule of law under our Constitution. Although our government and our politics is riddled with contradictions to this day, and although our founders can be considered both saints and villains from different vantage points, our divided nation gives us that opportunity to “Confront either extreme [of man] in earnest contemplation” and endeavor to cement a brotherhood more lasting and more enduring. Because of the work of Douglass and the Founders both, we have the opportunity to endeavor to “follow them from the gates of life to the gates of death, and beyond them” and make our mark on this great nation and its experiment in freedom for all, no matter how great or small any of us may be or feel under the weight of the political burdens of our day.

So what is the fourth of July to an American today? It is a much needed respite to reflect on this great opportunity to establish brotherhood with so many unlike ourselves. It is a wonderful time to recognize our civic duty to extend our hands to one another and recognize our similarities rather than our differences.

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“You Can’t Die if You Don’t Give Up”

So now it was all over, he thought. So now he would never have a chance to finish it. So this way the way it ended, in a bickering over a drink. Since the gangrene started in his right leg he had no pain and with the pain the horror had gone and all he felt now was a great tiredness and anger that this was the end of it. For this, that now was coming, he had very little curiosity. For years it had obsessed him; but now it meant nothing in itself. It was strange how easy being tired enough made it. 


He was nineteen days shy of his sixty second birthday: prematurely old, multidiseased, mentally bewildered, delusional, slurred of speech, in exile from Cuba, from the Stream, unable to compose so much as one true sentence a day, or so he’d wept on a sofa in his living room. Is it any wonder the most imitated writer of the twentieth century rose sometime after seven o’clock that morning, moved past the master bedroom where his wife was sleeping, padded down the carpeted stairs, crossed the length of the living room to the kitchen, retrieved the key to the locked storeroom where the weapons were, went down to the basement, took shells from his ammo box, closed and relocked the door, came back upstairs, walked ten steps to the front-entry foyer, opened the foyer door, stepped inside, placed the butt of the gun on the linoleum tile, tore open the breech, slammed in the cartridges, snapped it shut, bent over, rested his forehead against the blue steel, and blew away his entire cranial vault with the double-barreled, 12-gauge Boss shotgun with which he once shot pigeons?

There are plenty of things for which you can criticize Ernest Hemingway. You can call him a coward for taking his own life, and you can point to Zelda Fitzgerald’s account of his making a pass at her in an alleyway one drunken night. Many have pointed out that his code-hero is simply an affirmation and vindication of his own machismo character, and many have argued that there is nothing creative about his work: that it is merely a retelling of events that indeed happened in Paris and in Pamplona. However, all this would be to miss the most important point of Hemingway’s contribution to American literature, and this would be to dismiss the aim of good writing.

Hemingway’s most widely read work, and perhaps his most tired, is The Old Man and the Sea. Of that work, Papa once said “There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is the old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are sharks, no better, no worse.” Despite the criticism of his simplicity, Ernest Hemingway’s stories still endure because they touch what is all too human: failure in endeavor, and failure in self-redemption. Hemingway was able to produce work that was honest to his own life and his own vice, and this resonates with readers who are too weak to be honest with themselves about their own failures and their inability to white-wash those failures. Hemingway’s stories are the simplest of stories because they are the truest of stories, and they touch what is truest about ourselves; this is what most readers of Hemingway are too weak to confront, that his stories mimic the human fallen-ness that is too evident to all of us.

No story shows Hemingway’s confrontation and confession more so than The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Snows is the story of a man named Harry on safari in Africa with his rich wife. Harry is a writer who believes that he has become impotent as he has lived off of his wife’s wealth. Because he has become weakened by the life of luxury provided by his wife, when he becomes afflicted with gangrene in a cut on his leg he begins to distance himself from his beloved even blaming her for his demise as a writer and his belief that he “would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well”.

The story is a reflection on the life of a writer and his suffering; of his inability to express those truths that “Maybe you could never write… and that was why you put them off and delayed the starting”. What is striking is that Harry has given up: he believes that he is going to die and there is no fighting it. Meanwhile, his wife holds out hope for his survival, telling him “You can’t die if you don’t give up”. Harry responds “Where did you read that? You’re such a bloody fool”. He treats of his death as an imminently practical matter, whereas his wife looks to the metaphysical. While she asks “What have we done to have that happen to us?”, Harry responds “I suppose what I did was to forget to put iodine on it when I first scratched it”.

There are threads that run through this story and provide its depth. On one hand you confront the difficulties of marriage. Hemingway provides a power struggle between his code-hero husband and wife. There is the bickering about Harry’s purported “giving up” and the way in which his readiness for death will affect his wife. On a much deeper level, we see Harry bickering with himself through flashbacks, internally confronting his own insecurity and fears of death while providing false strength in regard to his impending death.

But what we receive through the depths of this text is some knowledge that what is most important is out of both Harry and his wife’s control. Although Harry believes that he is already dead, he has hope that is above and beyond him despite his recognition of that hope toward which he may grasp. Harry reflects, “He had had his life and it was over and then he went on living it again with different people and more money, with the best of the same places, and some new ones”. You see, just as Hemingway believed that his life has ended as he no longer had the ability to write the things that he once wrote, Harry believes that his life has ended because he has given up the opportunity to write by marrying his wife. What he doesn’t realize is that what he subconsciously confronts in his reflections throughout the story: that his life contains the properties of a life well lived, if he could just make good of these properties. Most readers rebuke Harry for beating up his wife, which is understandable, but my reading is that Harry’s verbal abuse of his wife stems from his inability to see good in himself. He verbally attacks her in order to confirm his control over his own life, despite his understanding all the while that he has lost control. What must be understood by Harry and Hemingway alike is that salvation is not to be found in fame and writing; that one cannot redeem himself through the product of efforts on this Earth, and that honor is something above and beyond the individual endeavor or accomplishment. Hemingway struggled with this his entire life, and Harry never approached it.

The story has a double edged ending. Harry lies in his cot after dinner with his wife as he drifts to sleep. He has a dream that he has been rescued. Harry ascends and sees the square top of Kilimanjaro, and “he knew that there was where he was going”. This recalls the opening description of Kilimanjaro as “the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai, the House of God. Close to the western summit is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude”. However, Harry’s dream is interrupted as his wife wakes to the laughing of a Hyena and witnesses her husband dead in the night. Undoubtedly, Harry’s reflection points that he is assured that he is that leopard climbing toward the House of God. Nevertheless, the reality is not so. Helen wakes and is still haunted by her husband’s death and the cackling of the hyena that accompanies that death. The great question that the reader is left with is the same one that we all confront: does the man who acts viciously in times of despair reach the House of God, and is his vice pardoned in death?

Harry’s true failure is being like that leopard of whom no one knows what he is seeking. He reflects, “You kept from thinking and it was marvellous. You were equipped with good insides so that you did not go to pieces that way, the way most of them had, and you made an attitude that you cared nothing for the work you used to do, now that you could no longer do it”. Because Harry hides all that is internal for fear of being perceived weak, he neglects the opportunity to lead a life of honest. If Ernest Hemingway’s birthday warrants one lesson, it must be that we ought not worship false idols and sirens singing the psalms of temporal fulfillment. This is a lesson that we as Americans are in such deep need of, and it is fitting and proper that Papa provides this insight for all of us in which we often take for granted that which is most important.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1: I Guess I Named Myself

Cornelius Sheridan Dare Postell. Wouldn’t that have been a hell of a thing to go by? The day that I was born my Uncle said “He will always be Bob to me”.

The tale that was told me was my uncle Frank Smith come in the morning I was born and heard that name. He always did his business on a Sunday. He asked, “What’d ya name him?”

“Hoho!” He laughed “He’ll always be Bob to me!”

That name stuck. So when I went into the Navy that was the name I put in: “Bob Postell”.

But the recruiter said that was just a nickname. I said “No… It’s not a nickname. I was named Bob”.

He said “That’s not a full name- you’re going to have to go by Robert”.

I complied because at the time that was all there was to do. There was no fighting it. So I’ve always signed my checks “Robert S. Postell”. It is the deal between what I was given and what I took; what the Navy give me and what I refused to give them.

I always said that I’ve named myself.

In school I went by Deacon. I always went to Sunday school because Pop always made us go. I had a friend who was named Bob Bryner and he was a Jehovah’s Witness. His folks had me over for dinner one night and his mother asked me when I would go with him to “class”. You see, they always called church “class”.

I replied “I’ll come with him to class when he decides to come to the Baptist church with me!”

Oh boy, did that go over bad!

So that’s when I hung the nickname “Baptist” on him. From that point on I was known as the “Deacon” among us boys. Old Dale Ward was “Cedrick”, Rolly was “Rolo”. And then there was old Carol Reams who we called “Dutch”; he was a really good friend of mine.

We started nicknaming one another early on. It was a way of knowing who we were, and that is what that Navy recruiter couldn’t understand. He couldn’t understand how deeply American it was because, rather than his own self-reliance, his obedience to the Naval order defined his American-ness. There is nothin’ more American than naming yourself. There is nothin’ more American than defining who you are and what you will be.

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This is the story of my grandfather, my hero. He is an Ohioan who served in the Navy in World War II. He is extremely conscious of becoming too elaborate in his story-telling and when he heard that I had recorded him the first thing he said was “It wasn’t any braggin’ in there was it?”. He always defines these stories as “most of ‘em funny”. Every time he tells me stories he reveals that of which he is most proud saying, “I’ve had a good life, Sammy”.

He also reveals that which he wishes to be remembered by. He fathered three children with the same wife. He loved my grandmother deeply and faithfully. The first time I ever saw him shed a tear was the night before her funeral. He said “She was my left hand and my heart” and brought the entire room to tears. He wrote her every day when he was away at war while she was working in a factory and taking care of their first born daughter.

However, little of what is within these pages come from the letters. We were able to locate a plethora of pictures, keepsakes, notes, and Naval garb in my grandfather’s house, but only two letters that he had written to my grandmother. His story is that he saw her lighting them on fire because she was “bashful”. In my heart I know that my grandmother was too proud to relive losing him to the war for so long, and she was too “bull-headed” to admit how special they were to her.

The stories herein told are taken from several hours of recording on different occasions of his telling them to my brother and myself. At first, I thought it impossible that he could remember so many stories from as early as the age of eleven, but I have heard these stories on numerous occasions as have a few others. I have talked to others that he has spoken with and the stories are the same each time. He is either being honest or he has memorized lies. You may choose to believe what you wish.

My grandfather’s stories are important because they capture the character of a people and ennoble that character, shedding light upon the goodness of a people who are in great need of ennobling. What his stories capture are a dedication to family, country, and compass. He always put his family first, no matter how difficult, and he never thought a thing of it. He understood that family was the stuff of life. He always loved his country, honored it, and fought for what it stood for, despite the various things about that country that he could choose to hate her for. He always kept in view his own moral compass, never straying from what he thought was right and never backing down when had to fight for what he believed in.

My grandfather is my hero because he embodies what is redeeming about Midwesterners and about Yankees. My grandfather’s story is important because it preserves the character and the habits of a time past and it preserves the history of a time when Americans were dignified without believing themselves so.

The terms “Yankee” and “Midwesterner” that I use to describe my Grandfather ought to be synonymous; however, not all Yankees are Midwesterners and not all Midwesterners are Yankees. Nonetheless, I believe that a Yankee is what a Midwesterner and an American should strive to be.

Outside the United States all Americans are sometimes described as “Yankees”. This includes Southerners. The informal British and Irish English “Yank” refers to Americans in general. It is especially popular among Britons and Australians and sometimes carries pejorative overtones.

Within the United States, “Yankee” usually refers to those of the Midwest and the Northeast. It most precisely identifies those with New England cultural ties and descendants of colonial New Englanders. It is therefore more cultural than geographical. It ties Americans back to the settling of America before the United States became Independent from Great Britain and expanded Westward, allowing the descendants of those settlers to disperse. It recalls the grit and the stern Puritan faith of those who settled along that coast. They later migrated through New York, then Pennsylvania, and finally into Ohio, later dispersing throughout the Midwest in no certain pattern.

Southerners often refer to Northerners as “Yankees”, and this certainly carries a negative connotation. It refers to the nickname of those fighting for the Union side in the American Civil War. The term Yankee implies holding one’s ground, willing to fight in order to “nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth”.

Yankees were the ones who migrated North, up the shore of America, and began operating fisheries and running towns. They were the ones who migrated West into what we now understand as the Midwest where they began to create the infrastructure that would later facilitate the industrialization that happened in the north. Because they were the first to define the habits and culture of the place that they inhabited to a great extent they informed the culture and the habits of immigrants who came to work throughout the next two centuries in hopes of becoming Americans. Throughout Industrialization, Yankees began to define themselves by work and work ethic in addition to grit and religion. It is peculiar the way in which a Midwesterner or a Yankee earns money and feels toward that money, especially if he becomes rich. Rich Yankees are different from any other rich men I’ve met.

If the hillbilly happens to become rich it is usually by chance. He takes a risk and stumbles upon wealth, only to expend that wealth quickly, lavishly, and foolishly.

The rich men on the coasts are always old money, or if they are not they feel self conscious that they are not. If their fathers were not rich they are burdened by this almost daily and conceive of a way to manufacture the circumstance of their birth in order to dignify themselves. They are defined by the wealth of their fathers and their fathers’ fathers before them.

Rich men in cities are self-made but often the product of calculated risk. They come to their own demise as a result of that risk, never taking a moment to cherish what they have got while they’ve got it, and never thinking about the provisions for the next day or for their children because they always believe that their industry and talent will provide income.

The Yankee, on the other hand, almost does not believe he has money even if he’s got it. It sometimes seems that he is bashful about having money for concern that he may appear to be reaching beyond his own means and therefore exercising haughtiness, but that is not quite it. The Yankee always deeply understands his past and his future and therefore he understands equality as the capacity of misfortune to bring any man to ruin. He does not feel exempt from the heaves and throws of life simply for having earned a few day’s bread. Even if he becomes rich he feels compelled to toil, often outlasting his necessary work years. The Yankee understands that work and toil define life and a man’s worth. It is almost as if the money is for naught. Even after the Yankee has ceased a life of labor and lives peacefully in retirement, he will conceive of a way to show those around him that he still struggles and works rather than rests. It is almost as if he believes that in giving up a life of labor he gives up life altogether. The Yankee feels self conscious if he is spending lavishly and frivolously and this will weigh on him. He will soon feel that his neighbors mock him and disdain him for breaking the appearance of equality of hardship and the fashion that is work.

This is but a mere sketch of what the Yankee is and what my grandfather has taught me is good within him. My grandfather’s stories should give vividness and expression to this description, and this should serve merely as a framework or reference to the themes throughout the book.