. . . does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Today is the 65th time the Fourth of July has rolled around since I was born. Over eager (perhaps?) celebrants began random fireworks in the wee hours of last night while I rolled over in bed onto my good ear so I could go to sleep anyhow. This morning flags are flying high on neighbors’ lawns–much like the beginning of any number of Independence Day celebrations I’ve seen for the past 40 years. What is different this time is that it’s the first time I remember ever asking myself, what does it all mean?. . . living here in the so called land of the free and home of the brave.
The July 4ths of my childhood, falling as they did at the beginning of tobacco harvest time, were invariably spent in the fields working from sun up to sun down. Sometimes the men took a short break to bring a few juicy melons from the watermelon patch to share. I remember once when Mama brought a hand-cranked ice cream maker to the barn and we all had an ice-cream break. Otherwise, we only performed our share of symbolic patriotic rituals in the school the rest of the year.
Every morning, from September until sometime in June, we all arrived at Mason School either by car or bus, mostly by bus. We would see the boys (why was it always boys?) chosen for the honor raising the flag that would fly over the school for the day unless it was raining. We knew the flag was to be respected, not mishandled in any way, not even allowed to get wet in the rain. At the end of the day the ritual would be reversed by the same boys that raised it in the morning.
We learned to place our right hands over our hearts and pledge our allegiance to the flag each time we assembled in the school auditorium. Sometime in the early 1950s, I stumbled for a time when reciting the pledge by memory, trying to remember exactly where to throw in those extra two words they added, “under God.” Eventually I managed to get it right and never questioned, not once, what those words meant. There were no blacks, or Negros as they were called then, no Hindus, no Muslims, not even any Catholics that I knew of–just a few Episcopalians–and over the course of my ten years only one Jew, and she stayed for part of only one term.
Nevertheless, we were taught that America was the greatest place on the earth, but as far as most of us knew or even thought about, we were the ONLY place on earth. What little we knew of the rest of the world was from Sunday school (Africa was full of black lepers with nubs for hands) and the wars (Japanese were green according to the comicbooks).
We were taught obedience and respect for elders (as long as they were white like us). We called the white men in the community mister with a capital M (Mister Witty, Mister Haultiwanger, Mister Trammel); the white women were always Miss or Miz, depending on your pronunciation, (Miss Leola, Miss Cloree, Miss Clarinda, Miss Myrtice). The black men you somehow knew you were never supposed to talk to were called by names such as those often used for pets (Big Man, Old Tutter or One-eyed Joe); as far as we knew most black women shared one name (Annie).
Among many things we weren’t taught in school was the extent Indians populated the early Florida before the Spaniards arrived. Maybe I wasn’t in school the day it was taught, (we were frequently taken out of school to get the spring crops set out) but I don’t remember anything about the four Indian wars early settlers struggled through. History teachers skimmed over the part of history that saw them constantly moved from one undesirable location to another until many tribes were completely wiped out. A few renegrade warriors struck back trying to hold onto the rights to their hunting grounds, though with far fewer numbers than those engaging in the same guerrilla warfare tactics being used in the current “war on terror.” The Indians were the first terrorist fighters in history though I’ll bet you never thought about it before. They never won that war and I’m not sure if we did either (we simply moved them aside). And the one we’re fighting now isn’t likely to be won by either side also.
So I ask, as that flag waves “o’er the land of the free and the brave,” who are the free ones (the rich white powerful ones who seem to like keeping those wars going, or those who work hard and still can’t afford more than the basic necessities in life)? Who are the brave ones (those that march to war without questioning those who send them, or the ones who call for an end to a war that can’t be won?).