In 2016 I took part in a summer program here in Tampa; The Tampa Urban Project. This time of my life was the genesis of a unique expression of my faith. I was living in a home on the East side with other college students and interning at a drug recovery ministry run by a church.
I spent my 4th of July with the group because the program ran from June until early August. We’d been visiting different churches every Sunday and the 4th happened to fall on a weekend that year. It was an odd experience, although it shouldn’t have been– people visit new churches all the time. It felt as though we were some spiritual or religious sojourners looking for a home. This Sunday was stamped into my memory, and my idea of what the 4th of July meant has shifted, or completely left. I realized that for me, it means nothing at all. We visited Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz.
By now I’m sure everyone has seen Jordan Peele’s 2017 black trademark, “Get Out.” You know the uncanny, sinister-like fiddling and instruments you’d hear throughout the film? The sounds that would alarm your black heart, spirit, and imagination that something vexing or disturbing lay ahead of the main character “Chris.” These are the sounds that characterized the moments of arriving at the church we visited. Trump was elected over Hilary Clinton that year so, at this point, people were candid in their expression and support of his candidacy. He wasn’t a win for white America nor a shift in the direction the country was headed. He was rather an attestation to the quiet truth that we have not gone anywhere.
As we approached the church I noticed homes, some nice and some outback, and trucks were garnished in American flags, spangles, and paraphernalia. It strangely felt as though it were bright outside but no sun sat in the sky. It was just, white. The inside of the church resembled those you’d see when waking up in the middle of the night to TV evangelists’ optimistic sermonizing. The kind of preachers who had riches that J Cole described as “robbing people for hope” money in 2013.
During the service, there was a performance and rendition of Patrick Henry’s speech on the rights of the colonies, before the Virginia Assembly in Richmond, on March 23rd, 1775. In the speech, the actor recited, spiritedly, “give me liberty or give me death!” The congregation held no applause. This was almost like their worship session for the service. A production followed, with who were supposed to be troops abseiling from the ceilings that sat high. Those who served wore their uniforms proudly. It was like the uniforms to them were what three-piece suits were to the men in black churches; and large decorated hats to black women. To conclude the show, an American flag was slowly let down; and draped over a statue of the crucifixion. We were then told to stand for the pledge (which I didn’t). A lady seated in the same row as us looked over and noticed how unusual we looked amongst everyone else in the church; we were also a diverse group. She asked a friend of mine who refused to stand, “well, aren’t you American?” I was haunted by how paradoxical it was to pledge allegiance to a flag in God’s House of Worship. As if patriotism was a requisite for Christian fidelity.
Alton Sterling was murdered by the police the very next day. Philando Castile was lynched the day after. Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the pledge for the first time in September of that year.
There are certain things I can't forget. Death sometimes accompanies pivotal moments. Even if it wasn't a death that was close to me, recalling the times means remembering the deaths that took place during them.
The black past is both a remembered and forgotten one. An acknowledged and ignored. We learn to celebrate pain as a means to the culmination of our lives. But America has continually used black hands, thought, and lives as the offering that would bear the brunt of its days spent in the valley. We must not forget the people we think of when we see ourselves and feel the bodies we live in.
"My spirit wearies of such blasphemy; and how such men can be supported, as the “standing types and representatives of Jesus Christ,” is a mystery which I leave others to penetrate. In speaking of the American church, however, let it be distinctly understood that I mean the great mass of the religious organizations of our land."- Frederick Douglass
America has long poisoned Christianity. This country is guilty of uniquely shortening the reach of God’s arm and attempting to conflate the principles of two widely distinct worlds. Jesus was not American and would deplore this country’s practices. There is blatant irony in my story; that I’ll allow whoever reads this to find and carry with them through July 4th. What this country considers Christianity is undoubtedly not, at its core. White people aren’t familiar with black freedom or burdens. In the context of Western history, Black people discovered freedom, first. We knew the freedom and hope that Jesus spoke of, intimately. So, for me, the 4th of July means nothing– it is an absent day. I don’t celebrate it. This isn’t an attempt to convince others to trail me in my decisions. But I want you all to remember, we still weren’t free after the 4th of July. Besides, the emancipation proclamation wasn’t signed until a year later.
When the rain fell and the flood came, America’s foundation was exposed; and we saw that it was a house built on sand and black backs. So, I do pray that God blesses America because it has cursed itself.
Jeremiah 22:12–13 “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice”