Monday, July 4, 2016

Happy Fourth of July - On Love of Country and Redemption

What is patriotism?

This question came to mind after a Gallup poll, a new low of 52% of Americans are "extremely proud" to be American.  So what on this day, I ponder: what is patriotism? Should we be proud or extremely proud of where we live, or is that misplaced  pride in an accident of birth or the piece of land in which we live? Is it more?

Those who follow me on social media may have noticed a bit less of me over the past week. That's because it was, for the Suskin family, vacation week. Appropriately enough on the eve of Independence Day, we traveled south to Colonial Williamsburg and environs, where we spent several days immersed in a facsimile of eighteenth-century America on the eve of revolution. We also spent some days riding roller coasters and waterslides, but that's less germane to the discussion.

I'll start with a particular event we attended at Williamsburg. Between demonstrations of eighteenth century crafts, stirring political speeches and musket demonstrations there was a play in one of the outdoor theaters: Redemption and Remembrance, about both the lives of slaves and, afterward, a discussion of the experiences of reenactors portraying both the enslaved and slave owners.

The play was surprisingly powerful and well-done, interweaving the stories of several slaves, including a carpenter, a house slave, and a field-slave. There was one stunning moment of violence when one of the slaves was branded on the hand for being [falsely] accused of stealing a sheep, and of human emotion in which a childless slavewoman and her childless owner were physically held apart by the other actors, forbidden from finding comfort in their shared experiences by the places in which society had put each of them. Other characters included a schoolteacher who educated young slaves in an attempt to Christianize them. A wealthy man, proud to have inherited several slaves from his parents and their parents.

After telling their characters' stories, the actors stepped out of character to talk about their experiences playing these roles for visitors, day after day. One of the things about which I'd never thought was the hatred the guests would sometimes feel toward them. The actor who played a wealthy woman - a character in which she very much immersed herself - described the changing attitude in those following a tour she gave of "her" house when the inevitable question about slave ownership was asked - and she responded that she did own slaves and that it was the natural order of things that she do so. Another spoke of feeling a wall of hatred as he answered a question about slavery in character. He was initially hurt by this, as anyone would be, but later realized that people SHOULD hate him for it, that giving face to the villain is important work.

But it isn't really about the white people.

One of the African-American reenactors recounted a story of a guest seeing him in character and, in what was meant to be a sick, nasty joke, asking "Isn't there someplace you're supposed to be, boy?" Shocked, he had to ask the guest to repeat himself to know that he even heard it correctly. His response, "In what realm is that supposed to be funny?" elicited a muttered apology, the offending guest not meeting the reenactor's eyes. Was this just a poor attempt to be funny? A "safe" chance to voice the racist impulses he already felt? Complete ignorance to the history about which he was speaking? In any event, it was an ugly and painful thing. Afterwards, I reflected that it must be fun for a reenactor to play the role of an eighteenth-century blacksmith, or carpenter, or even a weaver. It must be fun to portray an eighteenth-century politician.  It cannot be fun to spend ones days pretending to be a slave.

Afterwards, the audience broke into groups for a question and answer with the reenactors about the play, about the topic, and to share our thoughts about it. I ended up the "scribe" for our breakout group, taking some notes on a a wide-ranging discussion from the actual performance to how the world - even if it has changed - can still be an ugly and hateful place. We also discussed horrors more subtle and nuanced than the obvious cruelty of a slave owner or even the knuckle-dragging troglodyte with the "where are you supposed to be, boy" crack. The schoolteacher, for all of her piety and supposed kindness, wanting nothing better than to make them become more like us. After the group discussions, the scribes from the various breakout sessions took the mic and addressed the larger group, I appreciated the chance to share a few words on what we'd discussed, particularly about that schoolteacher, and how the bigger horrors of the past can leave us feeling smug about the progress we've made, while not seeing the distance we have yet to go.

The First Colonists en route here
At the very opening they placed, in a heavy-handed but effective bit of symbolism, a rope was stretched across the front of the stage, standing for the lines we have to cross to move toward an uncertain future beyond the prejudices of the current day. At the close of the performance, the actors stepped symbolically [and literally] across the line together. After the discussion, they invited the remaining audience to join them on stage, and take the step with them together, into the future. After the group discussion, the audience was invited on stage to take the same step together, hand-in-hand. Friends, family, and strangers.

Earlier, I spoke of patriotism, about pride in our country. and what it means. This country is the place where Thomas Jefferson wrote stirring words about freedom and independence. It's also the country that maintained the practice of slavery well into the nineteenth century, and Jim Crow laws for a century after that. It's the country which took until this century to elect an African American president and has STILL never elected a woman as president.

It's also a country with many people who WANT to be better. The country of Martin Luther King. The country that, even if it took far too long, DID elect an African American to be president, and is [I sincerely hope] on the cusp of electing a woman. It's home.

Is patriotism telling a pollster one is "extremely proud" of the place in which one lives. Perhaps for some. For me, it's about caring enough about the place to try to make it better.

It's about joining hands with strangers and family to cross the line together, towards an uncertain future.

Happy Fourth, friends.

No comments:

Post a Comment