My Pilgrim Note Dedicated to the 4th of July

E on DC

When I was a child I read about the pilgrims but I never thought I would become one. There comes a point in a person’s life when one either continues to lip-sync or composes one’s own melody. A few months ago I departed from an old world and embraced the journey to a sacred place. As an African-American I have often reflected on the contours of black history. Here is a black koan to meditate on: Which is worse, to be taken from the land or to have the land taken from you? 

If you want to know the answer to this “riddle” simply be black on a corner near Howard University and survey the surrounding neighborhood. The black person taken from the land learned to compose the blues. The black people who remained on the land soon found a European flag in their front yard. They discovered something else – the land was a sweet pastry waiting to be devoured by colonizers. Resistance comes with a price tag as expensive and as long as colonization. 

The pilgrim (in me) thinks about what it might mean to travel to Mars. The trip and the planet so far away one has to think about the journey as being a one-way ticket into forever … This is how an older worker  feels when faced with unemployment. How surprising to show up for work just in time to be “launched” off the premises. The healthy thing to do is to view it as Independence Day and not just an ugly divorce. 

Which brings me to “our” holiday this month. If I wore an Afro I would imitate Frederick Douglass and ponder what the 4th of July means today. After months of black men being black and blue  across the nation we are back to square one and elementary race relations. We are reduced to embracing a contagious simplicity with large philosophical statements like – “black lives matter” or “I can’t breathe” and “hands-up.” There is a sad frustration that leaks out of the bag of history when one begins to view all police officers as suspects. 

When I departed from the campus of Howard University after 40 years of employment I pondered the E in front of Ethelbert. Did it stand for Emancipation? If so, where was I now going? Was I just another black man walking the dangerous streets? Was the campus land under my feet suddenly being prepared for the arrival of a corporate flag? Perhaps it’s best in the 21st century to be a pilgrim looking for a sacred place. One’s world should never become a frozen place with gravity as light as that on Mars. Tomorrow is hopefully filled with more than a glitter in the sky. 

Once again we should ask ourselves, What is this place we call America? Every July we should renew our vows. Marriage is as difficult as love these days. We struggle to be worthy of the word beloved. Is there such a thing as intimacy and personal climate change? The pilgrim arrives on a new shore, and the first act is to give thanks for survival. Maybe this is the lesson (the take-home exam) that comes out of Ferguson and Baltimore. Somehow we survive and our nation looks into the mirror and there is beauty to behold.  

E. Ethelbert Miller is a literary activist. He was inducted into the Washington Hall of Fame in April 2015. Miller’s “Collected Poems,” edited by Kirsten Porter, will be published next spring by Willow Books.

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