July 4th, The Original Brexit:  Evolving identities and contested interpretations – Bharavi

Statue of Liberty

Man Sitting Under Tree IconThe thirteen colonies formed a new nation in a political sense, but their colonizing tendencies were still of impeccable British vintage. For, these thirteen united states … grew by a process of colonization, conquest and even outright purchase—of the lands of Native Americans (“Red Indians”), or of lands conquered by Spanish or French or Russians from the natives—until it attained the form it has today. – Bharavi

A rocket snakes its way purposefully through the inky black night.  There is a momentary flash, and a shower of sparks lights up the sky, silhouetting the skyscrapers with a surreal glow. Like a monstrous flower with lurid colors, the display persists for a second, and dies out in a rain of glowing embers, but wait! Other rockets are on their way, as if to take the place of the spent one, and overdo it in size and color.  Many are the hues, myriad are the forms, and night seems to be beating a temporary retreat over the distant horizon ambushed by this flood of light. Alongside, from hidden speakers and amplifiers, radios and recorders, swell the strains of well-loved melodies—O say can you see…. The crowd sways gently, and all eyes are agog, aloft.

A man exhibiting significant cutaneous pallor remarks “Ah, this is truly what makes America great!”  He is an elder in this land in a manner of speaking, descendent of European families that settled in this land more than three centuries ago.  From those homesteaders and pioneers, he proudly traces his descent. He need not even do so much as speak about this—all he needs to do is speak—his accent will do the rest of the talking.  We ask him where he has hails from—and he says “Boston”—whence the accent.

The original Brexit

As the exit of Britain from the European Union has become fait accompli earning the descriptor “Brexit,” we ponder another “exit” that happened more than two centuries ago. Rebels in thirteen New World colonies originally founded by British settlers, voted to secede from the mother country, and even fought a war to enforce the secession.  In this, they were helped along by the French, the arch-enemies of Britain, who, later gifted to the  American nation a huge statue of a woman in flowing robes holding aloft a torch, idolized as “Lady Liberty.” The thirteen colonies were the original “United States” that had “united” against a common foe—imperial Britain.  Even though the declaration of independence of the fledgling national experiment emphasized the “rights of man” it was clear that a more utilitarian purpose united the states—resisting the imposition of taxes on the colony.  “No taxation without representation” was the refrain.

The thirteen colonies formed a new nation in a political sense, but their colonizing tendencies were still of impeccable British vintage. For, these thirteen united states (i.e., states that historically united during a political crisis) grew by a process of colonization, conquest and even outright purchase—of the lands of Native Americans (“Red Indians”), or of lands conquered by Spanish or French or Russians from the natives—until it attained the form it has today.  In the process, several native groups just vanished without a trace, or ceased to exist as distinct cultural entities, or in some cases, continued to eke out a precarious and marginalized existence in one of the earlier version of concentration camps—known now by the innocuous term of “Reservations.”  The irony of 21st century America having a “Bureau of Indian Affairs” that has absolutely nothing to do with U.S. foreign policy towards the world’s most populous democracy (India), is sadly lost on Americans and Indians alike.            

Pudd'nhead WilsonThe making of identities

While the thirteen colonies were fairly cohesive in their identity as ex-Britons, the later acquisition of additional territories along with their inhabitants, and the legal continuation of slavery for more than a century after independence led inexorably to heterogeneity. People who couldn’t understand the idea of rebellion against a British tax, however unjust, and identified with other, more immediate and personal struggles, eventually formed a significant underclass. Even the “white” Anglo-Saxon Protestant component, still the majority, is not entirely as homogeneous as it seems. At the time of “independence” from Britain, they voted for English over German as the official language of the union, indicative of a submergence of several continental identities for political expediency. This process of submergence, referred to as a “melting pot” has continued well into modern and recent times, but it continues to throw up some arresting sidelights as it bubbles along.

For example, the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, externally as “white” a man as any Anglo-Saxon, was nevertheless notable for being America’s first Catholic president, again indicative of America’s submerged identities—Irish in this case—historical adversaries of the English on points of both territory and theology.  Barack Obama, the current president represents several identities—not only that of recent, non-European immigrants, but also that of the African Americans. The latter identity reflects, at best, a partial ethnic affinity and an honorary membership based on skin color, but not an actual sharing of historical experience with the general African American population. Most African Americans are descendants of slaves who were “imported” from Africa during the early days of the republic, but Obama’s parentage is distinctly different and of very recent vintage, his father being a Kenyan student in America who happened to marry a “white” woman—the de facto “American Native” of today. However, the racial segregation (though not genetic segregation, but that’s another very complicated “his-(and-her)-story”) followed in early America usually means that the offspring of such mixed marriages usually opt for a “social identity” that best fits their external appearance to allow for that convenient (and demonstrably imaginary) binary distinction—“white” or “coloured/black.”  

The white American humorist Mark Twain wrote Pudd’nhead Wilson in which a white child is replaced with a “colored” one born of a female slave, but whose skin is acceptably “white.” For these children, the imagined social identities they grow into become so integral to their self-description and spontaneous behavior that they both undergo crises of identity when the subterfuge is discovered, thanks to fingerprint records preserved by Wilson. And the “African” or “black” identity itself is a product of the collective enslavement of several groups of ethnically very diverse African peoples, mostly on the basis of one clearly distinguishing biological feature—skin color—from the dominant Anglo-Saxon strain.  Ahsanti, Yoruba or Zulu, all became “black” much as multiple Europeans—English, German or Dutch—became “white.”

At the borders of these dominant strains and identities exist other significant ones. One such is the so-called “Latino” or “Hispanic” i.e., Spanish-speaking Americans, acquired by immigration (dry- or wet-back in local disparaging parlance) and the conquest of Spain’s “latinized” territories like California. More difficult to master than the “white” or “colored” identities, they are, to different extents, descendants of Spanish conquerors and women from several different native “Indian” communities. Even those of them without a trace of actual Spanish blood in their ancestry nevertheless share two external social characteristics that make up the “Latino” identity—Catholicism and Spanish. A similar analysis may reveal interesting patterns in the other communal identities as well, but this should suffice for now. An investigation of how vast tracts of the “New World” came to be known as “Latin America” and how their peoples’ self-image has evolved would be likewise interesting.

The many interpretations of “Independence”

With this brief historical background, we find that for the Bostonian at the beginning of our story, no great explanation or emphasis is needed for July 4—he just needs to be himself and tribal folklore fills in the details, investing ritual actions with meaning. But, what would constitute “independence day” for the “others?” The Native Americans in their reservations who have found employment in “unreserved” America may just treat it as a useful holiday from work that enables them to journey back to their reservation, and they might even thank the British policy that enraged the original rebels in the first place, as a proximate cause for this temporary relief. The idea of a “just cause” in this context would be totally lost on such an individual, who finds himself as part of an increasingly fragmented and rapidly ebbing communal identity. As for the Latinos or Hispanics, one could conceive of debates on the desirability and merits of Spanish/Mexican dispensation versus that of the current white Anglo-Saxon Protestant rulers. For the Afro-Americans, perhaps the date of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863) or the Civil Rights Act (April 11, 1968) might resonate better with their historical experience.  

Much stands to be gained by documenting the past histories and the present views of varied peoples and communities that spontaneously congregate in public spaces to watch the customary July 4 fireworks. What does it really mean to them, beyond an event in the park? Do they really feel themselves as being part of a multitude with a common destiny and shared historical triumph, or are they merely onlookers, impelled by normal human curiosity towards the unfamiliar, and a sense of wonder towards the unknown?  After all, these fireworks unfailingly attract a sizable number of foreign visitors as well and, to complicate matters further, many of them share ethnic roots with full citizens while legitimately professing entirely different (and in some cases, hostile) national loyalties. Thus the hoary melting pot runneth over, and spews forth ever so many distinct entities, indicative more of a jigsaw puzzle, the position of whose pieces are determined by historical contingency and shared folklore. The notion of “independence,” when contextualized appropriately and interrogated sensitively, lends itself to multiple interpretations representing a kaleidoscope of lived experiences and incidental occurrences that present a creative and essential challenge to the received wisdom of a unitary, normative and universal “independence” on July 4, in whichever year.

Boston Tea Party