This Fourth of July, the answer is howling in the wind

This Fourth of July, the answer is howling in the wind
© Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On this momentous July 4 holiday weekend, the “answer,” as a young visionary poet promised more than a half-century ago, is not merely “blowin' in the wind.” Listen — it is literally howling.

We are living through an unsettled time in American history when, as Malcolm X had once precipitously taunted, the chickens are perhaps finally coming home to roost. Consider just the worst of the past few months and weeks: An erratically managed pandemic and a concurrent economic freefall, both of which have vindictively targeted Black lives most dramatically. The lethal torture of George Floyd in Minneapolis, followed by an eruption of protests, some needlessly violent and jarringly destructive, in cities across the country. An institutionalized racism that simmers with the potential to turn any police traffic stop or sidewalk questioning of a minority suspect into the shooting of an unarmed person. An ensuing assault on historic monuments, some of which have irrationally targeted certain historic figures. And, in the midst of it all, a malicious president who retweets a video of someone shouting “White Power!” but then disingenuously suggests it was an error — the same president who, with snide and self-interested political pragmatism, once touted the “good people” marching in support of white supremacy and shouting anti-Semitic chants in Charlottesville, Va.

Well … the stage certainly and fatefully has been set for a long, hot summer of national reckoning. And so, July 4, 2020, is now a holiday when, as patriots, we might as well be preparing for The Big Get Even.

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This electric realization has taken hold in my increasingly anxious mind as I’ve watched — with, I concede, mixed (that is, selective and nuanced) feelings — as protesters have toppled public monuments erected to commemorate traitors to the Republic, have denigrated the legacy of other complex individuals who were our inspirational Founding Fathers, and have rushed to contemporary judgments about the naming of schools and institutions paying homage to the achievements or generosity of flawed, long-departed benefactors.

On this holiday weekend, we celebrate the birth of the nation, and we look back to the bold Enlightenment ideals first enshrined in the national consciousness on July 4, 1776, as guiding standards of American life — “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” But it is not, I suggest, a reactionary instinct to flash an amber light of caution as well, before we rush pell-mell to incinerate our heritage.

The fury of contemporary indignation — however righteous, however solid the indictments that can be leveled against many of our forefathers — should not unleash a whirlwind of promiscuous repulsion. We need to think twice before we throw out the all-too-human heroes along with the villains who are simply being commemorated for their defining sins in ardent support of the worst of causes.

Consider this instructive moment from another turning point in our nation’s past:

There was a tense encounter, as Ron Chernow recreates it in his magisterial biography “Grant,” during the signing of the surrender agreement at Appomattox Court House in April 1865. The terms had been drafted with surprising speed, and Gen. Ulysses Grant assigned Col. Theodore Bowers, an aide on his Union Army staff, to prepare a copy of the agreement for the head of the Confederate forces, Gen. Robert E. Lee. Bowers, however, made a mess of things; full of nerves, he botched several attempts. Grant reassigned the task to Col. Ely Parker, a full-blooded Seneca Iroquois chief who also was a Union staff officer and Grant’s adjutant and secretary.

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When introduced to the husky, dark-skinned Parker with his jet-black hair, according to Chernow, Lee “blushed.” As one onlooker recalled, the Confederate general appeared offended because “a mulatto had been called on to do the writing as a gratuitous affront.” Then Lee realized that Parker was a Native American.

“I am glad to see one real American here,” the defeated general said, extending his hand. 

“Sir, we are all Americans,” Parker shot back with firm resolve.

“We are all Americans” — those four resonating words spoken by a Native American chieftain should be, I suggest, our guiding standard as we move forward in this long overdue reckoning with our nation’s complicated, often tainted past. It is a statement that embodies a generosity of spirit as well as a tacit acknowledgment of past sins. After all, the words were spoken by a man whose patrimony had been stolen by white men, at the official proceedings concluding a war that cost 700,000 American lives — a war fought to uphold the irreducible credo that no individuals should ever be enslaved.

On the 244th anniversary of the signing of the document that established our national ideals, let us move with commitment and alacrity to separate from places of honor or veneration those individuals who, in their rebellion against the republic, defied the Declaration of Independence’s ennobling precepts. Tear down the monuments to the Confederacy; they are part of history, but there is no acceptable reason today to honor the vile, unnatural cause they celebrate. They gave little to the nation and, instead, took much from it — including the lives of those 700,000 who died in the Civil War and the freedom of the 1.2 million people enslaved when that war began.

Yet, at the same complicated time, it would be a colossal mistake to remove the names and statues from monuments celebrating the Washingtons, the Jeffersons, the Woodrow Wilsons — all men with tainted characters who are honored, despite their large sins, for the very American causes and ideals they espoused and championed. In contrast to the others, we celebrate the good — and the heuristic guiding wisdom — they gave the nation.

In this summer of anguish, as we head with anticipation to a most consequential presidential election, and as we look to move beyond anger and resentment toward the creation of a more just, a more equitable future, we could do well to be guided by a Native American chief’s inclusive, restorative wisdom: “We are all Americans.” 

Howard Blum is a writer and contributing editor for Vanity Fair, a former Village Voice and New York Times reporter, and the author of more than a dozen nonfiction books. His latest book,Night of the Assassins: The Untold Story of Hitler’s Plot to Kill FDR, Churchill and Stalin,” was published June 2 by HarperCollins.