FREDERICKSBURG, VA.--I LIKE THE FOURTH of July because it’s the one day out of the year that you aren’t dismissed as a kook for celebrating rebellion here in the land of the free.
Today, of course, we commemorate the rebellion born in Philadelphia on a steamy day in 1776. But rebellion also was born that year a little closer to these parts—on Brookfield Plantation in Henrico County—in the person of Gabriel Prosser.
Although we’re perfectly comfortable celebrating the American Revolution, we don’t know what to do with Prosser and his failed slave uprising in 1800.
There’s no question that race has something to do with this. For some, Patrick Henry’s famous rallying cry—“Give me liberty or give me death”—makes sense only when fantasizing about idealized white people throwing off the yoke of British tyranny, or seceding from the Union, or storming the beaches of Normandy.
However, as the dispute over the proposed monument in Caroline County attests, even some African–Americans are squeamish about valorizing armed slave revolts.
So to comprehend Americans’ confused response to historical events such as Gabriel’s Rebellion, we need to look beyond simplistic racial explanations as well as those canards about Americans rejecting the use of violence.
Instead, we need to ponder that puzzling collective blind spot that so severely limits our political understanding: namely, our inability to recognize that conflict—violent or not—has served as the engine of change throughout our nation’s history.
This is a bigger problem than we realize—especially in these days of fear and conformity. For if we want to make our democracy healthy, we need to remember what Frederick Douglas said: “Those who profess to favor freedom, yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without planting up the ground. ... Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.”
You won’t find Douglas’ presupposition undergirding any official recollection of our past. These accounts efface all the agitation, all the demands for liberty, justice, and democracy for everyone. Maybe that’s because the “history” that’s been approved for our consumption by the education establishment, the mass media, and the politicians is what Henry Kissinger once called “the memory of states”—or, if you like, the memory of Power.
Why, just look at the way we think about the people who led the American Revolution. The Founders may have been impaired by their social circumstances, by assumptions of racial and gender superiority that made them, in some respects, anything but revolutionary. Still, they were willing to sacrifice their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor (and even become traitors) for principles that have inspired people around the world ever since that summer day in Philadelphia 226 years ago.
Yet how is it that we remember these guys? Usually not as rebels—not even on this day, the day of rebellion—but as rebels’ symbolic opposite: fathers. Even worse, we tend to see the American Revolution as a discrete event, not as a mere starting point of a process that seeks ever-increasing inclusiveness.
But no one can deny that the Founders left behind an incomplete project of liberty, justice, and democracy—like a weaver who creates a warp and leaves it to others to sit down at her loom and complete the weaving by fashioning a woof of countless colors and textures.
Lots of people have sat down at that loom over the years: the slaves who followed rebel leaders such as Prosser, Nat Turner, and Denmark Vesey; the workers who rose up in the summer of 1877, marking the birth of a truly national labor movement; the suffragettes of the early 20th century, who won women the right to vote; and the participants in the civil rights movement, who struggled to close the gap between the rhetoric of 18th-century rebels and the realities of 20th-century America.
Today you can find others seated at that loom—for example, those who are part of the global movement against untrammeled corporate power.
So forget all the banality and jingoism that can ruin this day, and take some time to reflect on that grand weaving project that’s meant to include us all. Then, go ahead and admit that it’s rebels, always rebels, who produce the most magnificent combinations of color and texture in the weave.
And, finally, make a vow to nurture tomorrow’s rebels, acknowledging that they are the ones who will add still greater beauty to the project begun on this day in 1776.
RICK MERCIER is coordinator of the Viewpoints section and a columnist for
The Free Lance–Star. He can be reached at email@example.com