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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Childish Gambino’s “This is America”, and the Importance of Burying the Dead

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Burial rites have occupied a central role in human civilization from the beginning of time. The funeral, and the honoring of the dead, is perhaps the cultural norm that spans the human spectrum: we are all alike in that we see it fitting and proper to acknowledge the dignity of all persons by providing for them their rites upon death. For Homer, this occupation was central to the text, providing pauses in the action of his poems while also spurring the story forward. In Books VII and VIII of The Iliad an accord of peace takes place only in order that the Achaeans and the Trojans may retrieve their dead in order to bury them. At the end of the poem we witness Achilles’ fullest descent into the realm of the human as he tearfully yields the body of Hector to Priam in order that he may bury his son. Odysseus is only able to meet the prophetess Tiresias in the underworld once he has provided the seemingly foolish and insignificant character, Elpenor, a proper burial; this acknowledges even the debt owed by a hero of time past to the lowliest of citizens in the rites of burial. What is most significant is the meaning of the burial rite: the funeral is important because it honors and lays to rest the human soul, bringing to a close the discord and tragedy that is human life, and reconciling that human soul with what lies beyond, severing it from the pain and suffering of this world. As Americans, we are increasingly acting as Achilles did, dragging the body of Hector around the walls of Troy out of hubris and rage in order to flaunt our political triumphs. We are therefore increasingly avoiding the rites due to our dead and the peace and catharsis that ought to accompany the end of human life and the tragedy that it entails. Childish Gambino’s recent video “This is America” touches on this tragedy, but I am afraid we are refusing to learn from the poet’s message.


The visual effects of Donald Glover’s masterpiece are undoubtedly essential to the music that he has composed. Throughout the video, Glover dances at the center of a group of children as he murders eleven bystanders, he ironically iterates the lines that reverberate from the popular songs that occupy hip-hop culture, and reminds his audience “don’t catch you slippin’ up” and “get your money, black man”. Not only do his antics distract the audience from what lies at hand in the video, but his lyrics emphasis that which distracts us from achieving the progress that we so desire.

The story told by the video progresses in a linear fashion, and the music moves in accord with the linear fashion of story told. We begin in a warehouse, and the entire story takes place in that warehouse. Only near the end of the video does Gambino run down a dark corridor toward the light, followed by the masses, attempting to escape. The warehouse emphasizes the central contrast of the work: although we are all connected by culture, we are isolated by experience and opinion. The great paradox of America is that we are all united by very fragile bonds of the internet and digital media, but we utilize these tools in order to draw us further apart rather than emphasize our common humanity, our common creed, and our common aim. We enclose ourselves in the echochamber that is the warehouse of our own thought, using the tools that could strengthen the ties that bind for evil and dissolution rather than peace and concord. In an interview with The New Yorker, a reporter asks Glover if he “looks up to anyone”. He responded “I don’t see anyone out there who’s better… Maybe Elon Musk. But I don’t know yet if he’s a supervillain. Elon is working on ways for storytelling not to be the best way of spreading information (Musk’s new company, Neuralink, intends to merge human consciousness with computers, allowing us to download others’ thoughts) It will turn us into a connected macroorganism, but it will make our individual desires seem trivial… Sometimes I get mad at him—‘You think people are insignificant!’ But we probably are at the end of the storytelling age. It’s my job to compress the last bits of information for people before it passes”. Gambino’s newest release has in mind the goal of overcoming this empty connectedness that Musk’s Neuralink, and the most degrading forms of technological innovation, hopes to accomplish. In “This is America”, he captures us as we are, all too human and unable to escape.

The video begins with a man playing a peaceful melody on his guitar, seated on a chair, alone, with no audience. The first time we see Gambino he has his back to us, emphasizing the difficulty of a people to understand an artist. This difficulty mirrors the difficulties of the several sub-cultures to understand one another. What is lost in translation is not only lost between people of different cultures and colors, but meaning is also difficult to convey for the poet who shares the same skin color with his audience. It becomes clear that “this is America”, and nobody understands anybody. He proceeds to dance in an erotic fashion, we see his face twist as he hopes to conjure the courage to do what he must, he puffs his chest out, and proceeds to shoot the artist in the back of the head. He hands the gun to a young man holding a red rag, who carries the gun off in haste, and he proceeds to march forward, again dancing. A group of teenagers join him in his dance while abandoned cars and groups of people fill the background.

The second homicide takes place when Gambino enters another room. He slips through the door, as a choir sings. When they begin to sing “Black man, get that money”, he is handed an ak-47 and mows all ten of them down. The gun is again carted off by a young man with a red rag.

It would appear that Childish Gambino is voicing his thoughts on the Charleston Church shooting, where Dylan Roof killed 9 victims attending a bible study on June 17, 2015. Many have even asserted that this is precisely what Childish Gambino is attempting to do; however, such an interpretation would undermine the entire thrust of his work. It is a great disservice to dig up the dead bodies in order to make a contemporary political statement, and it would undermine what Childish Gambino appears to be interested in doing in his video.

If we are to consider the Charleston Church shooting the subject of his video, we either have to write Gambino off as a lax observer of the facts of the case (he included ten victims in the video rather than nine), or we have to charge him with inconsistency. In his video he wants to show how quickly we turn to chaos and mob rule in the wake of tragedy, rather than seek consolation and unity. His video is diligent in attempting to draw the attention of his audience away from victims and towards popular trends. As a protagonist he acts as a villain and a distraction, hoping to embody the character of the contemporary hip-hop artist who places the guns in the hands of the community of which he is a part. After Gambino’s first murder he remarks “guns in my area… yup, I gotta carry ‘em”. He’s showing that, although the community understands that gun violence undermines the sanctity of the community and progress, yet all feel compelled to carry them because they are so emphasized by our music and our media. Thus in our attempts to rectify injustice, we proliferate the problems that agitate the community itself.

Many have used the video to emphasize the care for the guns rather than the care for the dead; they employ this analysis in order to highlight the problems of guns within society and emphasize that all-too-many of us put guns on a pedestal at the expense of human life. What they do is commit the misjudgment that Gambino hopes to highlight. They themselves refuse to do diligence to the dead that lie in the background directly following the murders. Central to their focus is the gun, not the dead. They would much prefer to focus on the gun as the problem rather than come for the murderer; they thus act just as the mob does in the video as they run past and ignore the singular guilty party in the wake of the crime. All forget about the victims and leave the bodies to rot. Those of us who still refer to the crime of the Charleston Shooting as an act of racial prejudice, and hope to indict the many for the crime of the one, fall victim to the same folly. We dig up the bodies of the victims and parade them around for a political victory- we thus do them a great injustice rather than give them their rest.

Dylan Roof has been convicted and indicted upon nine counts of homicide and nine life sentences. He has been condemned to death, yet we want retribution in tenfold and we thereby express our forfeiture of our own humanity. We want revenge, not justice. Perhaps the addition of the tenth member of the choir is the addition of Dylan Roof. In taking the lives of nine, he has stripped himself of his humanity. Although he has murdered many, he as the murderer has suffered the worst fate in degrading his own human capacity, and acting as the antithesis of man’s highest end: to love his neighbor despite color, culture, or heritage. The best that we can do in this tragic, all too human, life, is have faith in, and strive for justice. We ought not place center stage the villian that is the murderer, for often this is precisely what white-supremacist, terrorists, aim for. Our attention to their villainy affirms the success of their deeds. Rather we must “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations”.

 

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.