“Land of the Free, Home of the Brave”… some how this Fourth of July these words from our national anthem rang within me with a clearer ring… We want to be the “land of the free” but do we really want to be the “home of the brave”?
In the midst of the 4th of July festivities, this image from two years ago of the badass flagpole climber in South Carolina kept jumping into my mind… A picture speaks a thousand words. Does she not embody the brave spirit of dissent that gave birth to our country?
Fourth of July came and went this year, the usual patriotic displays of fireworks, sparklers, national anthems and lots of red, white, and blue. Did you too feel a surge of love and protective yearning for our country this year? Not just the usual patriotism but something deeper than that, a longing to reclaim (really for real) all of those lofty sounding ideals we sing and hear recited around the 4th of July to declare our independence as the “land of the free, home of the brave”.
Freedom feels so tenuous in our country today, so vulnerable to regression… As described previously, by many global indicators, freedom is currently in decline in our world. We want our freedom but are we willing to truly be brave to put some skin in the game to climb a flagpole or two to remove the relics and “monuments” of the past which excluded so many from the high ideals of the “self-evident truth” of freedom our founding fathers penned 241 years ago?
The 4th of July is a time to be festive and celebrate our “land of the free” but the week after is when the real work of the “home of the brave” comes in.
Pause for a moment the week after the 4th to hold Lady Liberty in your heart along with one of her modern-day badass, freedom-loving daughters—the South Carolina flagpole scaler—whose brave ascent/dissent embodies the hard work of preserving and expanding freedom’s call by removing all vestiges of the exclusions and stratifications of freedom and honor that have again and again divided our nation and the human family.
Her name is Bree Newsome, 30 years old, from Charlotte, NC. Early in the morning on June 27th, 2015, she woke up early and donned a helmet and climbing gear to scale a 30-foot steel flagpole. Her objective was to take down one of the stubborn “traditional” relics of our anti-freedom, slave-holding past — the confederate flag flying in front of the South Carolina State House. This was not some impulsive act. She planned it out. She was fed up with the stark contradictions between our high ideals as Americans and the stunning inequalities still sanctioned by traditional symbols and relics of the past. She was impatient with the blind spots which keep so many from connecting the dots between the ideals of freedom we celebrate and the slave legacy of our past, which still lives on in myriad vestiges in our hearts and minds as Americans.
In word and deed, she said to the world “enough is enough,” this traditional symbol of a patriotism so laden with the blood of slavery—yet flying high in a state capital—belongs in a museum not in a public place which symbolizes our highest and best values as a democracy.
Indeed there were many cracks in our Liberty Bell when the framers of our constitution penned the eloquent words we recite today around the 4th of July as hallmarks of the free, democratic society we seek to be today. And these cracks persist today and live on deep in the roots of our collective traditions and social norms. As much as we want to believe that freedom will just advance on its own, around the world freedom in fact is receding threatening to unwind hard-earned progress towards this crazy idea we celebrate on the Fourth of July—Liberty & Justice for All—that all human beings are born to live as freeborn people not as slaves, not as subservient, endentured servants, not as a “submissive role” or someone’s property to “own” or subjugate.
The reality is that while we sing our national anthems and celebrate independence day, we still have many “flags” and “mouments” that live on in our collective cultural fabric which create cracks and walls in the self-evident nature of the “liberty and justice for all” we celebrate on the 4th of July.
The day after the 4th of July is when we get to work scaling flagpoles to take down relics of injustice and unfreedom masquerading as holy and patriotic “tradition” which in fact spring from our oppressive, slave-holding, freedom-denying past.
Where do echoes of slavery—and all of the exclusions and stratifications that denied so many the inalienable rights and high ideals spelled out in of our constitution and declarations of independence—live on in vestiges and relics today?
Who still feels the shackles of the unfreedoms of the past that persist into the present still santioned by many of our traditional mores and defacto social norms? Some of these relics may not look like the “slavery” of the 18th and 19th centuries but live on like stubborn monuments in the traditional fabric of our cultural and religious lives together.
After she was arrested and charged with defacing a monument, Newsome released a statement which we need to hear again today this 4th of July: “We removed the flag today because we can’t wait any longer. We can’t continue like this another day,” she said. “It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy and building toward true racial justice and equality.”
You go girl. Let us bravely put on our helmets and climbing gear to join you in your brave freedom-loving ascent/dissent. What other “flag poles” await our ascent? What other “monuments” to our enslaving, oppressive past need to be taken down?
As Nelson Mandela so beautifully and simply said, “Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people are the chains on all of them.” As we observe the spirit that gave birth to the “land of the free, home of the brave” let us bravely connect all of the oppressive dots — from race, to gender, to class — that continue to stratify freedom and linger on in our collective traditions.
Along with taking down tired old monuments to our racist, slave-owning past, let us also channel the “Land of the Free, Home of the Brave” spirit which gave birth to our country to “take down” the lingering monuments to the most ancient oppression, which over 4000 years ago made women our world’s first slaves. 
We tend to think of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade as the beginning of slavery, but forget that the idea of owning other human beings as one’s property goes back over four millennia to the ancient world where women, along with slaves, were deemed as property owned by the “master” of the house. We easily forget that many of our freedom-fighting “founding fathers” themselves owned slaves and likewise carried with them the subjugating gender norms of the Old World into the New, creating inumerable cracks in our Liberty Bell which persist today and threaten to unwind hard-earned progress towards this crazy idea we celebrate on the Fourth of July — Liberty & Justice for All — that all human beings are born to live as freeborn people.
Because patriarchy (“the rule of the father” in Greek) is so ancient and became so encoded in so many of our religious and cultural traditions which have come to be the taken-for-granted “traditional family values” in so many cultures, we lack the historical awareness of the origins of this highly oppressive system which gave birth a plethora of gender-based traditions which live on as “monuments” in our day-to-day lives—all of which hearken back to an epoch in human history when women came to be seen as an inferior, unclean class of human beings meant for subjugtion and not possessing an intrinsic sphere of basic human agency which is the essence of being a freeborn human being.
In every generation, the quest for freedom has had its contradictions. Time and time again, freedom fighters have bravely thrown off the shackles of one form of tyranny and waxed eloquently about freedom as a “self-evident truth” yet in the very same breath were complicit in gross forms of tyranny they justified as sanctioned by Tradition and holy-sounding rhetoric. Why is it that we as humans again and again so easily fall into the trap of fighting so hard for our own freedom and indepedence yet all too easily build walls laced with holy and patriotic sounding ideas which exclude and stratify the same freedom we seek?
Nowhere do you see the contradictions of freedom more acutely than in our abolitionist history as a country which freed the African slave yet used holy-sounding (laced with violent, building-burning rants) appeals to the Bible to deny the same freedom and civil rights abolitionists were advocating for black men to the women and girls living right in their own households. Freedom has its stunning blindspots and sadly those blindspots all too often stem from within our cherished traditions which live on like monuments well past their shelf life.
It is no accident that black men earned their freedom and civil rights almost six decades before the female half of society—black, white, and brown—were granted the right to vote and began the journey of becoming full citizens of the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave. If you look back deep into the recesses of the abolitionist movement, you will find a chilling line of argument against slavery used by Christian leaders holding high their Bibles which argued that slavery “went against God’s will” and “natural order” by treating black men as women.
As we pack away our fireworks and 4th of July decor, let us not gloss over the fact that when the framers of the Declaration of Independence penned the infamous “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal” they did not mean for this to include the wives and daughters who lived in their own households. As we turn the page on July 4th, 2017 let us not forget that many Bible-holding white abolitionists and likewise many black men who fought for their own freedom and civil rights did not see their wives and daughters as possessing the same yearning to live free of subjugation and slavery.
The reality is that the gender norms that were brought to the New World did not see females as fully human possessing a nature meant for freedom and honor. The reality is that on their quest for a New World where they could live freely, the colonialists carried “monuments” from the ancient world which saw women as made of an intrinsically inferior nature that destined them for lifelong subjugation (e.g. being treated as a subject owned and mastered by another). The reality is that still to this day, so many of our cherished traditions which live on in our churches and in our cultural fabric are exactly like the Confederate flag flying high about a statehouse, “monuments” and “flags” which hearken to a time when the female body was seen as unclean and the source of evil in the world and thus destined women for a slave-like submission and subordination which persists in varying degrees and forms in our world today.
The reality is that when “men” was used throughout the lofty sounding prose of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 it was no accident. It did not mean to include women just as it did not mean to include other people groups deemed to be created with an inferior nature meant for subjection.
Today as in every generation, stubborn and stunning authoritarian, imperialistic, apartheid-like forces are rearing their ugly head in every corner of the world, including right here in our own “land of the free, home of the brave.” These forces threaten to take us back to the elitist, exclusivistic, stratified “freedom” of the Old World, where owning and subjugating other human beings came to be seen as normal and became part and parcel of building empires.
As we pack away our sparklers and fireworks this 4th of July and get to the business of truly being the “home of the brave”, let us keep at the forefront of our minds all of the “cracks” in our Liberty when the Declaration of Independence was penned 241 years ago when more than 500,000 black Americans were considered human property at that time, not endowed with the same “inalienable rights” declared to be “self-evident” by the freedom-fighting colonialists. In the Southern colonies where most people lived, enslaved peoples made up roughly 40 percent of the population. And let’s hold at the forefront of our mind that one half of the colonists — black and white alike — who were born female lived under a slavery-like subjugation in their own households in a social system called “patriarchy” which arose some 4000 years ago in the slave cultures of our ancient cradles of human civilzation.
Their “shackles” were not made of iron, but rather of tradition. Like enslaved Africans torn away from their homes and brought here as cargo in the bottom of ships, females at the time of Independence were still deemed to be the property of their fathers/husbands and not born of a freeborn nature worthy of the rights of citizenship.
Because this gender-based subjugation takes place within the intimate contours of family life, it’s shackles had/have a “softer” face than race-based forms of slavery yet the gender-based humanitarian scourge now called “gendercide” and the highly feminine face of modern-day slavery (with some 80% of its victims being girls and women) suggests that patriarchy too (like “benevolent” attempts at slavery) has a harsh and subjugating underbelly. It is precisely because of its softer, more benevolent sounding face that patriarchy persists in more subtle and stubborn ways than more overt forms of slavery. It is precisely because of its air of being “traditional” and “Biblical” that patriarchy lives on as a taken-for-granted social norm which lives on in countless “monuments” to a time when freedom was deemed to be possessed only by male human beings. In some places, the rhetoric of “traditional family values” implies a soft, benevolent form of patriarchy, yet in others there is nothing subtle or benevolent about it. I have heard with my own ears too many women and around the world in a matter-of-fact way compare their own marriages to slavery. Thankfully, there are inspiring endeavors like World Vision’s Channels of Hope for Gender Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program, Gender Reconciliation International, and Beyond Borders Re-Thinking Power which are doing the brave flagpole-scaling work of “taking down” and transforming the outdated and oppressive idea that one gender was born for submission and one for mastery/dominion.
We don’t need to look very far to see the demeaning, harsh side of patriarchy; we have a stunning caricature of Old World patriarchy which we just elected to the highest office of the land.
It is no accident that the same country which elected a black man president (an incredible milestone in our shared long walk to freedom not without its backlash and resistance) just experienced the rising up of such a deeply disturbing and stunning misogyny which has stung the collective female soul in cruel and insulting ways that led to the largest global march ever on the planet which spanned seven continents, 82 countries, and roughly 5 million people.
Like Bree the flagpole scaler who took down the Confederate Flag flying high over a statehouse, a whole “army” of stunned-to-the-core, activated women and so many male allies are saying “hell no” to the stunning gender regressions that have so rudely insulted women with an archaic gender norm which does not honor the full human sovereignty of women as equal members of the freeborn society we celebrate on Independence Day.
What flagpoles are before you to scale? What patriarchal monuments persist in your churches and ministries, which continue in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to stratify freedom by proudly proclaiming “set the captives free” in faraway places around the world yet in myriad ways say to women right in your own pews be silent and submit, you are a role not a free human being?
In generation after generation, our forebears have passed on these patriarchal “flags” and “monuments” with rationales and appeals to their Bibles and holy books to keep women “in their place” – outside of the voting booth, outside of the shared dominion/leadership for which we all are created, and outside of all the rights of citizenship we now take for granted.
Have you too seen these stunning gendered stratifications of freedom in your own religious or cultural pond?
Have you too felt the constriction of freedom in the air today which everywhere around the world is falling so heavily on the shoulders of girls and women?
Are you stunned that in this moment of time these two images emerged together in our American imagination? Wonder Woman and The Handmaid’s Tale – one an idealized picture of femalekind strong and empowered; the other a dystopic picture of women submissive and confined to rigid gender roles.
If so, read the second post in this post-Independence Day blog series which attempts to “connect the dots” to grapple with, and understand how so many generations of freedom fighters have again and again sought to excise freedom from the female heart viewing females as a slave-like class of humans, not created to be included in the ranks of the freeborn.
“The function of freedom” as Toni Morrison states, is not just to free yourself but “to free someone else”. This is the brave work of post-4th of July.
Who around you is not free?
Who needs someone else to join with them in scaling a flagpole to take down a tired, old symbol of our subjugating, stratifying, enslaving past?
What gender relics live on in your own pews and/or cultural fabric which need to be bravely “taken down” and put in a museum?
It is beyond the scope here to demonstrate adequately the historic and unsavory connection I am asserting between slavery and the many patriarchal traditions that live on in our world which in various ways have attempted the “excision” of female human agency in the name of God/Tradition saying “woman, it is your role to submit”. Throughout history, countless women—e.g. 19th c. abolitionist/suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton — have described the conditions surrounding their lives as “slavery” or akin to slavery. Likewise, numerous historians and anthropologists like Gerda Lerner, author of The Creation of Patriarcy in 1986, have gone back to uncover the beginnings of patriarchy as a social system and trace its roots back to the shift to a more sedentary, agrarian lifestyle in the 2nd millennium BC in the Ancient Near East when slavery began to become a normalized part of human existence as semi-nomadic tribes began to settle down and war with one another to expand their territory. She and many others convincingly show that the capacity to settle in one place made both war and slavery possible as humankind shifted from more “flat”, egaligarian structure of semi-nomadic existence to the “dominator societies” of ancient empires. As men killed each other off in wars to defend/expand their territories, they took the women of the defeated tribes as their “spoils” of war and there you have the beginning of patriarchy and slavery: women living as slaves (aka “concubines”) within the context of family life. People tend to think of patriarchy as something “natural” that grows out of the ground like flowers and trees but in fact, like slavery, it has a beginning and thus can and should also have an end where we leave subjugating patriarchal traditions in the past that have lived on in our world well past their shelf life. For more on women as our world’s first slaves, see this summary of Gerda Lerner’s historical analysis and main thesis in The Creation of Patriarchy.