It was about 25 years ago, and I was living in Chicago, struggling to make it as a musician and writer. One day I heard about some kind of air show that was going to take place that very clear, warm, pleasant afternoon on the city’s North Side over Lake Michigan. The advertisement promised all kinds of cool jets that most folks don’t ordinarily see, doing all kinds of cool stunts guaranteed to make the crowds go “ooooooh!” and “ahhhhh!” Sounded like fun, so I decided to catch the el from the South Side, where I lived, and go check it out.
I’ve loved planes since I was a little kid. My parents used to take me to a particular spot near Denver’s old Stapleton Airport so I could watch the planes take off and land. Watching planes, flying in planes, paper airplanes, rubber-band-powered planes, gas-powered toy planes, glider planes — anything having to do with airplanes was guaranteed to get my attention. When I heard about this air show it was a welcome chance to return to childhood where things were always much simpler and considerably more fun.
When I arrived, there was a predictably large crowd gathered near the lake to witness the show, and once it got under way it did not disappoint. The planes wrote big smoky white letters in the sky; they climbed rapidly out of sight into the blue, then swooped down over the lake performing all sorts of acrobatics. It was like watching a sort of militaristic ballet, if such an oxymoronic thing were possible.
It was a gas to watch, beautiful in many ways, and I was all into it until near the end of the show when a particularly large, sleek jet bomber shaped like a black triangle with a long neck — I think it was called “The Blackbird” — was announced as it virtually crept above the crowd not more than several stories above the lake making hardly a sound. As everybody watched in awe, the jet rolled slowly over to one side, exposing its metallic underside. Slowly the belly opened wide to expose an empty chamber where a bomb would normally have been tucked away if this plane had been on its way to war. After giving everyone a chance to peer closely at its womb of mass destruction, the plane closed the chamber, righted itself, then zoomed off at a near impossible speed cloaked in the same ominous silence that had enveloped its arrival. It was simultaneously one of the most beautiful and terrifying things I had ever seen. One of the most effective instruments of warfare was being portrayed as an entertaining art form. It was a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
The crowds, indeed, oooohed and ahhhed approval.
This Sunday will be July 4, which Americans celebrate as our Independence Day. Although Detroit had its annual fireworks extravaganza last Wednesday to celebrate the holiday, many other cities will be lighting up their skies with all kinds of beautiful colors and aerial designs that you can’t help but enjoy. For a lot of people I suspect July 4 is more about fireworks, barbecuing in the park, and a day off from work than celebrating America’s hard-fought independence from the British — just as that warplane in Chicago was viewed by wide-eyed onlookers more as entertainment than something having to do with the savage destruction of lives. Who wants to tie knots in their brain contemplating the brutality of war and the costly, ugly sidebar issues attached to America’s independence when they can watch a really cool show writ large in the sky? Isn’t it kind of unpatriotic to publicly contemplate these kinds of things? Isn’t July 4 the time when we’re all supposed to adhere to the patriotically correct line — or bumper sticker — “My Country Right or Wrong”?
I suppose the answer to those questions depends on how you would define the word “patriot.” If you think a patriot has to be someone like the late President Ronald Reagan who blissfully ignored such monumental home-front issues as the AIDS crisis and the poor (ketchup is a vegetable, remember?) while gleefully proclaiming that it was “Morning in America” just because he felt like saying so, then, well, there you are. This more popular definition of American patriotism stipulates that love of country is best proven by your willingness to put on a happy face and sing “America the Beautiful” in blithe ignorance of the nation’s many open wounds.
And speaking of patriotism and “America the Beautiful,” were you aware that this song was written by a lesbian? Do you think President Reagan was aware of that when he lifted his voice? The song was written in 1883 by Katherine Lee Bates, a feminist professor of English at Wellesley who lived for years with her “life partner,” Katherine Conan, an economist and social historian. Bates was “a progressive lesbian who agitated for a more democratic America,” as author Greil Marcus described her in an article for the online magazine Salon. Now there’s a patriot. And were she around, I’d like to know her thoughts on our gay marriage debate.
Someone else who spent most of his adult life as an agitating patriot was Frederick Douglass, the renowned African-American abolitionist and former slave who back in 1852 in his adopted town of Rochester, N.Y., delivered a fiery speech titled “The Meaning of July 4 for the Negro.” After acknowledging that America was indeed a great country that had given rise to many truly great men, he had this to say about America’s cherished holiday:
“I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!”
The true meaning of patriotism is loving your country enough to tell the truth about it. The truth may hurt, but it also heals, and it’s way past time for the healing to begin.Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. E-mail [email protected]