“We Have to Act with Peace and Love” (and Justice)

By Phoebe C. Godfrey

I am a Holocaust survivor. I experienced as a child every single thing a Gazan child is experiencing on a daily basis, including the loss of my family, war, firebombing, hunger. It pleases me to no end to see you here… I take courage and urge you to keep going… We need to bring this to an end, there is no excuse for the slaughter of 15K+ children and untold others. We have to act with peace and love, and I am proud to be here with you.

—Marione Ingram, author and peace activist,

speaking at an American campus protest

Yesterday I was sent a mini-video on X (formally Twitter) of Marione Ingram speaking at a campus protest about the ongoing slaughter of Palestinians, and I was deeply moved by her words. In fact, I was so moved that I knew I had to write about her courage to recognize that the slaughtering of innocent civilians, and in particular children, regardless of who is doing it and the reasons claimed as to why, constitutes what can be considered crimes against humanity. In short, what is happening to Palestinian civilians by the current Israeli government cannot be justified and therefore should not be supported by our government, and certainly not by our tax dollars, as in military support. And yet, as succinctly pointed out by Jon Stewart during his April 8th show, the same actions for which we have no trouble critiquing Russia, when done by Israel receive no condemnation at all. Fortunately, many of our nation’s college students disagree with our government and even with many of their universities, which, despite their generally implied missions to stand up for the public good, and even for truth and justice, often do not.

When I was at Rutgers University in the spring of 1985, we had a student protest movement—the Rutgers Coalition for Total Divestment—that, through persistence over years and months, including many weeks camping out on campus, resulted in “a New Jersey Senate committee approv[ing] a divestment bill that would remove $2 billion worth in investments of pension funds from companies associated with South Africa” and that led Rutgers to announce “a total divestment worth $6.4 million from over ten companies, including Coca Cola and IBM.” Our student protesting “made Rutgers one of over twenty schools that adopted or that would go on to adopt policies of at least partial divestment from companies that did business with South Africa.”

I share this because, as I write, many of my own students, as well as many other students at UConn and around the nation, are calling for their universities to divest from the fossil fuel/military industrial complex as they recognize the direct links between these industries and what is happening in Palestine. Many of these students identify as Muslim and are also standing up to the Islamophobia that our nation’s blanket support of Israel embodies, and many others who do not hold that identity are nevertheless standing in solidarity with their peers, as they know that what is being done in our name, with our taxpayer money and with direct links to our universities, is wrong. As Ingram says, “there is no excuse for the slaughter of 15K+ children and untold others,” including journalists, medical personnel, and aid workers. Except…ahh yes, and it is always the same, for the ruling few there is power to be gained and money to be made. Shame! Shame! Shame! as students have been chanting.

Given the students’ divestment agenda, I decided to investigate UConn’s links to the military industrial complex and was not surprised how easy it was (given the internet) to connect the dots. In fact, just last month UConn renamed its engineering building from the United Technologies Engineering Building (after the seventh largest military contractor in the country) to the Pratt & Whitney Engineering Building, no doubt due to the donation of large sums of money. This all sounds well and good—who doesn’t want money to name buildings and fund students?—but when I further googled Pratt & Whitney, I found that last year they were awarded a defense contract worth “$2,023,073,136 … to procure materials, parts, and components for Lot 17 of the F135 Propulsion system for F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter aircraft.” Then I looked up where some of these planes have ended up and found that recently the “State Department authorized the transfer [to Israel] of 25 F-35A fighter jets and engines worth roughly $2.5 billion,” as well as 1,800 “2,000-pound bombs,” which the planes are able to carry. These bombs, which, according to the Washington Post, are “capable of leveling city blocks and leaving craters in the earth 40 feet across and larger, are almost never used anymoreby Western militaries in densely populated locations due to the risk of civilian casualties.” Yet, as the article goes on to say, “Israel has used them extensively in Gaza, … most notably in the bombing of Gaza’s Jabalya refugee camp Oct. 31.” As a result, “U.N. officialsdecried the strike, which killed more than 100 people [among many thousands of others], as a ‘disproportionate attack that could amount to war crimes.’” However, “Israel defended the bombing, saying it resulted in the death of a Hamas leader.” Of course that would be the claim, just as when we were killing thousands of civilians in Iraq (about 200,000, at the cost of $728 billion) during the so-called Operation Iraqi Freedom (nothing was further from the truth), any number of casualties would be justified by unsupported U.S. military claims of having successfully killed at least one of our extremist enemies.

And so, when we take the time to connect the dots we must concur with the students that UConn, and many other universities around the nation, are financially tied to our military—a military which has committed and continues to commit atrocities directly and indirectly, through equipment support and sales, all in the name of ridding the world of so-called “evil.” Additionally, we must listen to Marione Ingram, who was interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, where she said that such wars only increase terrorism, suffering, and death—as well as, I would add, climate change and ecological destruction. They do not lead to peace, nor increased global security, and they certainly don’t help us, as a species, maintain a livable planet.

The only answer I can offer to all this death and destruction, based on my past activism and my educated understanding of the world, is almost the same one Ingram offers. It is one that so many who have gone before, including all the world’s great spiritual leaders (but, sadly, not most of their followers) have offered, and that is, “We have to act with peace and love” (and justice).

Ceasefire now! Divestment now! Peace now!

Anything less is shameful! Shame! Shame! Shame!

From Ideas to Art:  An Exploration

Like art, revolutions come from combining what exists 

into what has never existed before.                                                        

                  -Gloria Steinem

By Phoebe C. Godfrey

Writing for Neighbor’s paper, I often meet people who read my work and appreciate what I have to say (I just met a reader at Ledgecrest Greenhouse).  To those people I would like to extend an invitation to my upcoming art show at the Kerri Gallery in Willimantic.  Many may not know that I also paint / create art and that I see my art as a way of exploring similar ideas that I do in writing but doing so from a more ‘right brained’ approach.  A fascinating TED Talk that I share with many of my classes is called My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolt Taylor (she also went onto to write a book of the same title), wherein Taylor describes her experience having a stroke on the left side of her brain.  She lost the ability to speak (temporarily) but instead found herself feeling like the “life force of the universe” by having her right side of her brain dominate (the sides / hemispheres are not separate but are linked by the corpus coliseum, but they do have different areas of specialization).  At the end of her talk (and I assume, also her book) she proposes that as a culture we need to spend more time experiencing life from our right hemisphere and less time organizing, separating and compartmentalizing everything as we do use our left hemisphere.  I agree and in fact this was what led me to learning to paint over 20 years ago. 

I began painting in graduate school while studying sociology as I found the emphasis at the time on my ‘left brain’, endless reading writing and critical analysis, called for a way to balance myself by using my ‘right brain’.  I was at the time inspired by something Gloria Steinem said in her book Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem (1992) and so I began painting (I was also dating a painter at the time who also encouraged me).  In her book, as with her quote linking art to being like a revolution, she further recognizes the role that art can play in advancing our self-esteem.  In my own case, I had always wanted to paint but felt if I did it would change me in ways I was not ready to experience.  But eventually I picked up a brush, signed up for classes at the Art Students League (ASL) in New York City and have continued ever since.  Consequently, the ‘revolution from within’ did happen, which in my case involved leaving my then male artist boyfriend for my first female girlfriend–something else that I have also continued pursuing ever since (as in having women partners). 

After 5 years at the ASL and a completed Ph.D., I left New York for my first tenure track job in Laredo, Texas.  Since I no longer had access to models, I started making copies of paintings from past masters, while taking liberties to reinterpret the paintings in order to say something about me as well as the artists that was both original and provocative. As a sociologist and an artist, I have sought to weave together the past and the present, inviting viewers to see their own lives through a more temporally expansive lens and to contemplate how their lives might be interpreted by others in the future.  My recent series on revisioning the Book of Genisis comes out of my teaching on climate change and environmental destruction and aims to invite viewers to question in deep ways how our cultural stories are contributing to our self-destructive behavior.  I think the arts are essential to helping cultures reexamine their values and to do so in ways that invite people to explore new ideas–their inner revolutions–in ways that can be more transformative than with merely left brain rational ‘facts’. 

The title of this show From Ideas to Art:  An Exploration comes from my process that, as a sociologist, begins with an insight into or a question about (and usually both) our society that I then seek to translate into an artistic image or creation. 

My show will be on display from April 2nd to May 31st, with the opening reception on April 4th from 5-7p.m.  I will be there then and welcome talking to viewers, as well as hearing any kind feedback via email.  

Finally, we will be giving out buttons at the reception that say: “Turn Ideas Into ART” – may it be so!

Lessons from Travelling: Reflections from Kenya

When two elephants fight, the grass is trampled.

                                                    —Swahili proverb

Article by Phoebe C. Godfrey

Recently I had the good fortune to travel to Kenya with others from UConn in preparation for taking 22 students there this summer. The focus of the two-week summer trip will be to give the students opportunities to learn about the impacts of climate change on different members of Kenyan society and to see what measures have been and are being taken to, if not directly address the causes (as those come mostly from us in the West), at least explore possible ways to mitigate the impacts. Of course, there is the irony of the impact of flying and all the expenses involved. But, having just spent a week there talking to faculty at the University of Nairobi, as well as to Maasai farmers, herders, teachers, medical personnel, and chiefs about climate change impacts, I can affirm that for me it was worth it.

What I learned by listening and talking to people there is that drought on the one hand and flooding on the other, as well as unseasonal weather variations, are having impacts far and wide on food security, medical services, gender/class inequalities, and other social factors. Farmers are losing crops; herders are seeking water for their animals; roads and bridges are washed out; food-, water-, and animal-borne illnesses are spreading; and many other linked crises are impacting people’s abilities to go about their daily lives. I also learned things—not necessarily related to climate change but holding aspects of solutions—from looking out the van window at the people and the land. 

Finally, from spending two days at the Maasai Mara game reserve witnessing the wonders of the animal inhabitants—who, despite everything that goes on in our human world to challenge their existence, still manage to reign supreme—I learned about the importance of preserving animal diversity. No matter how many images you have seen of elephants, hippos, or giraffes, or how many times you may have seen them in zoos, seeing them where they belong, in the right ecosystem and in the right relationship with each other, reveals their dignity and grandeur in a manner I found deeply moving. In fact, given my profession as an environmental sociologist who teaches about climate change, environmental destruction, and species extinction, such an experience was healing. 

This healing did not come just from the animals, although they played a large part, but also from the Kenyan landscape, and of course from the people we met, and from all the people I didn’t meet but fleetingly observed from the van window as we drove for hours on end. All these people were just living their lives but doing so in ways that were highly visible, social, and seemingly satisfying. And yet this constant public presence, in both rural and urban areas, is seen as evidence of “underdevelopment,” whereas in our culture we can drive around and see almost no one and that is seen as “development.” Of course, there are climatic differences that play a role, but even in our summer months it is rare to see people outside walking, talking, engaging in commerce, working, herding, drinking…or just being. There are times, such as Willimantic’s Third Thursdays, or at farmers markets, summer fairs, and festivals, where people gather, but overall, I would argue that as a culture we are socially and creativity starved. 

My claim for us being “socially starved” has been confirmed by Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who issued a public advisory last year that we are in an “epidemic of loneliness,” which threatens people’s health as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.  However, my other claim of being “creativity starved” is not as common, and I use the term specifically to draw attention to how, in counties like Kenya and throughout the Global South, people can be seen everywhere doing the tasks of daily life and doing them in ways that are innovative, creative, and engaging. Of course, all such places that are deemed “underdeveloped” have over the modern age been brutally colonized, dehumanized, and gravely impacted by our extractivist economy and the impacts of climate change, and yet people have continued to survive and seemingly thrive. 

People in Kenya are farming, herding, building houses and furniture, fixing motorbikes and cars, selling fruits and vegetables, slaughtering animals, fetching water, walking to school or church, or just sitting under a tree, “being”…and so on and so on…in an endless stream made up of the varieties and colors of life. In the larger cities, of course, there are plenty of cars and all the trappings of modernity, but such “development” does not stop the stream of people on the streets. Again, I found all of this human interaction and engagement to be very healing, a reminder of what it means, or what it should mean, to be human, and that people need to be social and creative in ways that we in our culture have for the most part lost. We sit in our homes, befriending our screens, waiting for commodities to quickly arrive, or we drive along empty roads to big-box stores where we speak to no one, create nothing, and wonder why we feel so empty, bored, and depressed, even as we are convinced that the way we live here in the U.S. is the best. It is not. 

What we need more of in our culture are social and creative spaces, places, and encounters, not just with other humans but with other living beings. Such engagements are also key to addressing climate change, by feeding our souls and not just our pockets and our accumulation of commodities. The price for our so-called development has been to rob us of our need for the unknown, the unexpected, and the uncharted—in other words, all that is wild, in both us and in the life around us—and thus we rob ourselves of so much life, life that is wondrous and wonderful in its complexity, diversity, and creativity. For as the Swahili proverb goes, “When two elephants fight, the grass is trampled,” which I take to mean that life requires the making of messes that are not “messy” as we understand the word but are deeply rich and fulfilling. Thus, what we need throughout the world, and specifically for our culture, is not just for there to still be elephants but to find ways to get back to trampling the grass. 

Dreaming of Snow: A Climate Change Dilemma

By Phoebe C. Godfrey

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know…
—Irving Berlin, 1942

It is the last day of December 2023 and I am in Vermont to ski, but instead of skiing I am writing this piece. This is not a testimony to my dedication to the Neighbors paper, as much as I support it not just as a writer and a reader but also as one firmly committed to all the different ways it helps to create community across and through multiple modalities. Rather, my writing of this piece instead of skiing speaks to the fact that in Vermont, and across New England (and, I have heard, in many other ski areas across the country, including in Connecticut), there is almost no snow, and the only available snow to ski on is artificial. Furthermore, even the artificial snow is limited, as for almost a week temperatures have not been below freezing and it has done nothing but rain.
The ski resort we have passes to, Mad River Glen (MRG), located just outside of Waitsfield, Vermont, and next door to Sugarbush, has in the past prided itself on not making snow on more than a few runs. Its slogan, “Ski It If You Can,” includes the understanding that what you ski on is what nature has provided, and therefore the conditions are both better when it does snow and much more unpredictable and varied when it does not, as opposed to other resorts. MRG is also a skiers-owned mountain, in that it is the only co-operative mountain in the country and the only one to have voted, years ago, to not allow snowboarders, as their style of riding changes the contours of the snow to the detriment of skiing. MRG’s other slogan, or mission, is for its members to act as “stewards of the mountain” rather than owners of a for-profit ski resort. This mission, along with its being member-owned, has kept MRG from allowing itself to be sold to Sugarbush, which itself—along with Stratton and many other ski resorts around the country—is now owned by Alterra Mountain Company, based in Denver, Colorado.
However, as much as I and the other members support this mission, it poses a problem for the future of MRG, in that the climate will continue to warm. In fact, one study suggests that “virtually all [U.S. ski] locations are projected to see reductions in winter recreation season lengths, exceeding 50% by 2050 and 80% in 2090” if nothing changes in global carbon emissions.1 Thus, this year when listening to “White Christmas” in the many shops in which I found myself, the line “Just like the ones I used to know” took on a whole new meaning, making it not only a Christmas song written by the famous Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin (born Israel Beilin in Russia, 1888), but also the first climate change Christmas song.
As avid supporters of co-operatives (such as the Willimantic Food Co-op and CLiCK, the nonprofit we co-founded that is based on co-operative values), my wife and I have become shareholders of MRG and have bought our season ski passes there, as opposed to somewhere else like Sugarbush. Upon our arrival on December 27 we were disappointed to find that MRG had only one short run open, and my first thought was that they should invest in more snowmaking “so we can ski,” “so we can get our money’s worth,” “so we don’t have to go ski elsewhere,” and, for the long term, “so they can financially survive.” However, in returning to MRG’s mission that we are “stewards of the mountain” rather than owners of a for-profit ski resort, a serious dilemma and contradiction arises, as how can one be a mountain steward and advocate for an increase in snowmaking?
It should be no surprise that snowmaking requires extensive energy inputs, as well as water, machinery, and labor. According to a new study from Canada, that nation’s current annual snowmaking demands the same energy required to power 17,000 homes,2 while other studies from Europe have recognized the impact that artificial snow, which is denser, can have on the flow of oxygen to the plant life below, therefore negatively affecting the ecology and biodiversity.3 Furthermore, artificial snow products such as Snomax contain “proteins from a bacteria” whose impact on environmental and human health “are not yet well understood.”4 On the other hand, one argument in favor of more artificial snowmaking is that it keeps skiers from getting on planes and looking for snow elsewhere, such as Northeast skiers flying to the higher altitudes of, say, Colorado or Utah. Still, given that hospitality companies are now offering passes that give skiers access to all their mountain resorts across the country (such as Alterra Mountain Company’s Ikon pass), this kind of ski travel is ever more likely. And so, corporate monopolies, the search for snow, and the making of snow all combine into a vicious cycle to increase climate change and thus, tragically, the loss of snow. Of course, this is true of everything we do, including my using a computer to write this piece…
I am not writing this piece to offer any concrete answers, rather merely to muse on the ever increasing predicaments in which we are finding ourselves ensnared. These were illustrated in a cartoon I saw in a local Vermont paper which had a person looking through binoculars at a ship labeled “2023” and saying, “Goodbye to a year of fires, floods, terrorism, and wars.” The person next to them also had binoculars and was looking at the next ship coming into shore, labeled “2024,” and their remark was, “I’m not so sure…” I second that comment on this last day of 2023. In fact, I am sure that 2024 will not be better—not globally, not nationally, and certainly not in terms of climate change. As painful as it may be to our culture and as antithetical to our economic system, the fact remains that unlimited growth on a finite planet does not bode well for all life on Earth, let alone for skiing or the future of “white Christmases.” Thus, all the choices we make, the values we uphold, the truths we defend, the community and love we build matter more than ever.
So, on that note I am going to continue to dream, not just of the future return of more snow (probably not in my lifetime), but of the more equitable and ecologically and socially sustainable world we know is possible. And, more than this, I am not going to merely dream, I am going to find ways to collectively build, even if it means continuing to ski on just one short slope in support of the very values we need now more than ever.

1 Dave Zook, “Climate Study Suggests Grim Scenario for Ski Resorts,” Protect Our Winters, https://protectourwinters.org/climate-study-suggests-grim-scenario-for-ski-resorts/.
2 Tyler Hatch, “New Study Reveals Harmful Environmental Effects of Snowmaking,” Snow Brains, June 16, 2023, https://snowbrains.com/new-study-reveals-harmful-effects-of-snowmaking/.
3 Federico La Bruna, “Expensive Snow: The Environmental Cost of Fake Snow,” Ecobnb, Feb. 28, 2020, https://ecobnb.com/blog/2020/02/expensive-artificial-snow/.
4 Adrian Dingle, “Artificial Snow: A Slippery Slope,” ChemMatters, Dec. 2018/Jan. 2019, https://www.acs.org/education/resources/highschool/chemmatters/past-issues/2018-2019/december-2018/artificial-snow-a-slippery-slope.html/.

The Field and the Space

By Phoebe C. Godfrey

I do expect from people, outsiders, … unless they themselves come from Israel or Palestine or they have relatives there, … if you are just an outsider, don’t be intellectually lazy, don’t be emotionally lazy, don’t see just part of this terrible reality, try to see as much of the reality as you can, because the people there now, in the midst of this suffering, they are incapable of doing it, but we need outsiders to somehow keep a space for future peace, because we can’t keep that space right now.

—Yuval Noah Harari on the war in 

Israel and Gaza, Zeit online

Since the atrocities committed (and ongoing, as people are still being held hostage) by Hamas against unsuspecting and innocent Israelis on October 7, I have been thinking about what Mevlana Rumi, the Persian poet, wrote: “Beyond good and bad, there is a field, I’ll meet you there.” Additionally, I have been asking myself what it takes to reach this field, this space, proposing that it can only emerge to the extent we allow our hearts to break open, but not apart. 

Since Israel began its bombing of Gaza (part of an ongoing 50-year violent and racist occupation), violating human rights, including the Geneva Convention, which prohibits reprisals against civilians for the acts of enemy soldiers, I have been thinking about what it takes to embody the teaching of the prophet Jesus, who very clearly said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:38–39). 

From both these enlightened teachings, I catch a glimmer of what it must mean to embody grace and, if there is a God/Goddess, to honor how they have called for us to emulate and embrace the complexities of perspective. When we are in our pain, in our beliefs, in our reality, it is almost impossible to see the other’s pain, the other’s beliefs, the other’s reality, but that does not mean they are not there, and that they are not equally valid from where the other is standing. This is not to say that there are no conceptions of right and wrong, that there are not international laws, human rights laws, treaties, and agreements that we can and should use to help guide us and seek justice, but rather that we must always recognize that justice is a transformative journey and requires above all else that we proceed with deep love and empathy, not just for ourselves but for others, including our enemies.

On that day, October 7, a Saturday, I informally officiated at a wedding between a young French/Swiss Orthodox Jewish man and a French/Tunisian Arab woman who fell in love against the social odds and the wishes of his family but not hers. I said to them that their love is more than our typical socially sanctioned love. It is a challenge to our segregating and tribal ways and as such it is a love that must be held and nurtured with great care and kindness, as it offers hope for the world. I told them I felt honored on that day to bring their love, their traditions, their faiths, and their stories together to help teach us that the field is there, if only we have the courage and the humility to see it.

Since that day, many around the world have been taking this journey to see and even to create the field. Among those who moved me deeply is an Israeli man, Maoz Inan, whose parents, Bilha and Yakov, were killed by Hamas but whose heartfelt words can and should teach us so much. He stated in an interview with the BBC, “I am not crying for my parents, I am crying for those who will lose their lives in this war. We must stop the war!” 

Or Youssef Ziadna, the Bedouin bus driver who saved 30 Israelis at a music festival from Hamas’s massacre, risking his own life. He said afterwards, “I knew I couldn’t give up on my mission. I will go and rescue them.” He added, “I would never wish on anyone to see what I saw… This is trauma for my whole life. When I sit alone and recollect, I can’t help the tears.”

Or members of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), who have been organizing protests across the U.S., including the largest-ever pro-Palestine protests in D.C., demanding a ceasefire and that “Jewish grief must not be used as a weapon of war.” Acknowledging the increasing number of Palestinians killed, including at the time almost 3,000 children, and calling Israel’s action “a genocide,” JVP also demanded that the Israeli government: 

  1. immediately cease its bombing of Gaza.
  2. allow all life-saving humanitarian needs to enter Gaza, including water, fuel, food, and medicine.
  3. begin direct negotiations for Israeli hostages.

Or our friend, a Presbyterian pastor in Hartford, who is married to a Christian Palestinian musician whose family in Bethlehem are in lockdown. Last week she focused her sermon on inviting her congregation to connect deeply with their hearts and spirits and from there to do the hard work of grieving, advocating for justice, and bringing about healing. 

Or my own brother, who is Jewish (I am not, as we share a father but not a mother) and lives in Israel with his Israeli wife and three children, and who yesterday led a prayer ceremony “dedicated to the work with the community that is on the other side of the threshold…looking at how the living and the dead are part of the same organism that is called life,” in which work he included all the dead and all the living. On this side of the Atlantic, the ceremony was joined by my wife, Tina, and a friend of ours, who together smoked the sacred Chanunpa (pipe), a Lakota way of sending prayers, while I too sent prayers from where I happened to be outside of the state.

These are, of course, just a few of the many, many examples of those on both sides who are seeking higher spiritual ground and doing what they can, where they can, in order to try to do what Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari proposes—in short, that if you are not directly in “the pain,” “don’t beintellectually lazy [or] emotionally lazy” and “just see part of this terrible reality,” but rather “try to see as much of the reality as you can” to hold “a space for future peace.” And if you are in “the pain,” find community and healing so you too can make your way to Rumi’s field, to a future space for peace, as we will need as many people as possible there if we are to do the hard work that reconnects and redirects those lands, this world, toward justice. 

What to the [fill in the blank] Is the Fourth of July?

By Phoebe Godfrey

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 of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.

—Frederick Douglass, July 5, 1852

It is July 4, 2023, and I am called to revisit the powerful and poignant words of the great orator and former slave Frederick Douglass. In his speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” he was able to both honor the Founding Fathers “for the good they did, and the principles they contended for” (no doubt a necessary political stance) while nevertheless still calling attention to the dire contradictions embedded in their words due to slavery (which included their ownership of humans from Africa as slaves) and its justification through legally based racism. As Douglass points out so contrastingly, “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.… You may rejoice, I must mourn.” 

Yes, he must have mourned, for what else could he, or any others who were still or had been enslaved, have done? Of course he/they struggled and still are struggling as slavery’s legacy continues and thus, I am sure, Douglass would still be mourning, as should any of us be who have ever been moved by the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence and contrasted them with our failure to make them a reality. For the Declaration unequivocally states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” and yet we still have not achieved these lofty goals. In fact, it can be stated that because of the so-called “highest court of the land,” the Supreme Court, we have been going backwards. So, for me, if today is to mean anything, it must be a reminder of how far we have yet to go and how, until we get there, we too must also mourn, even as we continue to struggle! 

Therefore, today I am not marching in our local parade (as I usually do while engaging in some manner of protest), I am not having a bar-b-q, I am not socializing, but rather I am mourning by writing this piece and listing all the things for which I am mourning.

In presenting what I am mourning, I want to affirm that my inclusion of other reasons to mourn besides slavery are not in any way intended to question Douglass’s focus on those people who were, or whose ancestors were, once enslaved. Rather my goal is to recognize that in our collective mourning we are stronger. Even if my list does not include all your reasons, it is nevertheless an attempt to give you permission to voice your own. For the words of the Declaration, I think, can only be viscerally understood by those who still have not been “included within the pale of this glorious anniversary.” As such, on this day we must continue to listen to the least powerful among us, as opposed to allowing those for whom these words have delivered Rights, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness (tragically, most often at the expense of others) to declare them a done deal for the rest of us. 

“You may rejoice,” usually epitomized by the waving of the stars and stripes as if the flag speaks for all, “I [we] must mourn.” Today I mourn…

that Douglass’s descendants still do not enjoy what he called “the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence” (see video made by NPR of his descendants reading his speech in 2020).

that the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action in universities will further impact the exclusiveness of the Declaration (while the members of the Court make sure they enjoy their own Rights, Liberty, and pursuit of Happiness, even to being above the law).

that the tyranny of the British monarchy was merely exchanged for the tyranny of capitalism and corporate control over all aspects of government, never for the people—always for profit. 

the Supreme Court’s ruling that separation of church and state does not extend to website design for LGBTQIA-2-Spirit people and that selective prohibitions from the Old Testament can once again become law. (Why focus only on those who are “homosexual” when meanwhile designing websites for those who commit adultery, talk back to their parents, eat unripe fruit, and work on the Sabbath, who are also on God’s kill list and thus should also be on the plaintiff’s list of unworthy customers?) 

the Supreme Court’s unpopular, unrealistic, and sexist ruling on reproductive rights. What have we done since to support the Life and Liberty of those who can get pregnant? Nothing! This ruling was merely about misogyny, patriarchy, and control, with nothing about loving the born—only the unborn! 

the Supreme Court’s ruling on student loan debt. Even the God of the Old Testament dictated in Deuteronomy 15 that every seven years there should be a release of debts…so much for the Court’s consistency! 

that there are daily reports of fires, heatwaves, floods, and species extinctions, and yet the focus remains on whether the Dow Jones is up or down, as if as long as somebody is making money somewhere, it justifies the destruction of Life (isn’t that one of the Declaration’s promises?) on earth.

that daily shootings in this country continue to be a leading cause of death of young people—and this isn’t just about the mass shootings, but the ones in our impoverished cities that go mostly unreported.

that Indigenous voices are still not being respected, let alone lands being returned, nor are the Indigenous being seen as holding key insights into practices that could help us address the toxicity of our own culture, which is resulting in climate collapse for all.

Add yours…

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Jul/Aug  2024 Issue

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