My History Of Maladjustment

Or: some thoughts on the 4th of July

Dear friend,

Last week I joked with my sister that I wasn’t too excited about Independence Day, and that Juneteenth was “actual independence day.” On reflection, even that isn’t true; since the Civil War ended, there have been struggles for giving women the right to vote, ending segregation, extending basic human rights to gay and trans people. I am not a political writer, in the sense that I don’t often make politics my direct subject matter, but last night, I found myself reflecting on the way I spent the holiday, which is that I didn’t participate in any of the traditional activities (going to a barbecue, watching fireworks, etc) and when I did think about my country’s history and founding, it was mostly with sorrow.

I haven’t ever been very patriotic. By the time I was a teenager, I had pretty much adopted the stance that love for my country pretty much required that I not be patriotic, but instead be critical and wary while also remaining hopeful about the future.

Hope is not optimism; hope is a deliberate choice to imagine a better future. One can be realistic about how things will probably turn out while at the same time hoping that they’ll turn out better than expected, and doing what work one can to try and realize that imagined future.

When I was in high school, we were assigned to read Frederick Douglass’s A Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, and Mark Twain’s The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, two books that would be banned by the right (for being “critical race theory,” whatever that is) in the case of Douglass, and the left (because the racist white characters in the book, which include the main character, talk like racist white people talked in the pre-Civil War South) in the case of Twain. Both of these books shaped my perspective on my country’s history. Douglass’s unsparing descriptions of what it was like to have been enslaved helped me to see that the “independence” we celebrate was an idea that was only partially realized for a privileged few, and the project of extending that privilege to more and more people until it was extended to everyone was far from complete. America has never meant its own language about freedom.

Twain’s book follows its main character through an experience which he perceives as friendship but which I would say is also a spiritual and political transformation. Huck’s religious community taught its children that to help the enslaved escape was a sin; in a moving scene, Huck declares, “well alright then, I’ll go to hell,” siding with his friend, Jim, and deciding to help him escape, and in the process becoming more genuinely Christian than everyone else in his community. (For the theologically-minded: Huck, in choosing hell as the cost of saving Jim mirrors the choice of Christ in Gethsemane to accept the crucifixion and to be sent to hell.) There are, to use fashionable terminology, some “problematic” things about Huckleberry Finn, but the effect it had on me, at least, was that I decided then that I would seek out such transformation myself, make myself open to it, that I would be, in Martin Luther King, Jr’s words, “maladjusted.”

Around the same time I heard the rap group Public Enemy for the first time. I heard them in the car with my stepmother; there was a news item about them on the radio and a snippet of their song “911 Is A Joke” which is about the poor response by paramedic crews in Black neighborhoods. I was transfixed. I had always like hip-hop, from the time I was 8 and saw breakdancers outside the Metro in Washington D.C., but the anger, humor and clarity of Public Enemy especially connected with me. I was, at the time, not allowed to buy music with Parental Advisory stickers (I was 16 when the album that song is on, “Fear Of A Black Planet,” came out). But I had a part-time job, and one day, walking home from an orthodontist appointment, I slipped into a record store and bought the album, and listened to it in secret, on headphones.

This became the jumping-off point for my love of hip-hop. In the early 90s, as I began to listen to more hip-hop I was exposed to the ideas of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Baldwin. I read their books, and more importantly, because we had a taste in music in common, I began to make genuine friendships with Black kids. One, a coworker and classmate named Rodney, who was quite militant, would talk to me at length about politics, and exposed me to the ideas of thinkers like Fred Hampton and Stokley Carmichael. But most importantly, Rodney was willing to talk to me about his own life and experience, and to confront me about my own racist ideas.

The life I lived growing up was fairly segregated. In spite of their conservative politics, my parents had raised me to believe bigotry was wrong, but in our day-to-day lives we didn’t really know very many nonwhite people, and weren’t in close relationship or community with them. And though were we not bigots, we still held some pretty racist ideas, and benefitted in untold ways from racist systems. At school, in spite of it being technically integrated, socially it was still de facto segregated.

We were legitimately poor for long stretches of my childhood; I lived in a trailer park for a while, and our family drank powdered milk for years. My father, who voted for Republican his entire life (except for one time when he voted for President Obama in 2008), was laid off multiple times in the 1980s thanks to Reagan’s anti-labor policies, and I watched my parents struggle to make ends meet for a decade.

We didn’t know any openly gay people. There were two men, one who went through gay conversion therapy through a religious group, with the limited success you’d expect, and one who was closeted, who my parents knew. My parents were quite homophobic - just the topic of gay people existing was enough to make my father angry. In high school, many of us thought my art teacher might be gay, but at the time North Carolina law meant that he would lose his job as a teacher if he were openly gay. Still, he did a lot to open my mind on that topic; nothing overt, but, as a good teacher does, challenging me to think harder about some of my received beliefs, and this added to my growing sense that what I had been taught was causing many people to suffer.

All of this left me, by the time I graduated high school, with a sense that America was not really the “land of the free” and by the time I was old enough to vote, I had mostly lost any childhood patriotism I’d once had. By the time I graduated college, thanks to my involvement in poetry, I had many people of color, immigrants and queer folk as friends, and my picture of what America is like incorporated what I’d learned of their experiences.

I didn’t feel patriotic again, and haven’t since, with the notable exception of President Obama’s election in 2008. When my father, with whom I usually disagree on matters of politics, called me to tell me he was voting for Obama (“you’d better sit down; I have some news,” he said) he also said something that, in spite of our frequent disagreements, turned out to be a useful piece of wisdom: “He’s the best choice this time, but he is a politician. He’s going to let us all down.” And I was indeed let down: drone strikes, the failure to close Guantanamo Bay, the continuation and escalation of Bush’s forever wars, the worst-of-both-worlds compromise of Obamacare, his opposition to gay marriage, the fact that he bailed out the banks after the 2008 financial collapse and kept Bush’s Wall Street cronies in key government positions, the fact that it was his administration that began the “kids in cages” policy for handling immigrant children at the US-Mexico border. President Obama did a lot of good things - nominating Justices Sotomayor and Kagan to the Supreme Court, for instance - but on the whole, President Nixon has a much more progressive policy record than President Obama.

My country’s legacy of slavery, racism, sexism and heterosexism, its near-genocide of the continent’s indigenous people, its pretty consistent bias in its laws and policies toward the interests of the rich and big corporations against those of ordinary people, its bloodthirsty foreign policy, its utter denial of the reality of the danger we face with climate change, its abandonment of genuine education in favor of training people to be pliant worker-consumers, and its militarization of its police forces all make it very hard to feel good about the handful of good ideas in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

It is in this state of mind that the recent Supreme Court decisions found me, and I was bemused to read so many statements and memes on social media from people reacting to the Dobbs v. Jackson case saying things like “America is only free for some of us,” as if this were new information. “Where have you been this whole time,” I think to myself when I read statements like that, and of course it highlights how much work there is to be done, when so many people can’t (or won’t?) see suffering unless it threatens them or people very similar to themselves.

At the same time, I have not given up hope. America is guilty of many sins, but at the same time there have been and remain remarkable people whose imagination, compassion and hard work have changed and could yet change things for the better. Along with Public Enemy, Dr. King, Malcom X, Baldwin, Hampton, and Carmichael, there are so many others who have articulated a better future and who work for it. Writers, musicians, artist, poets, and activists, too many to list, who offer an idea of an America that actually lives up to the language in the Declaration of Independence. We’re not there yet and many days it feels like we are a long long way from getting there. But I find myself agreeing with Dr. Cornel West, when he says

“I am not optimistic about America. I am a prisoner of hope, because I believe that, within the American empire, within the American democratic experiment, there are always some courageous and visionary human beings of all colors who are willing to throw down for love and justice.”


Here is Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech “What, To The Slave, Is The 4th Of July?”

Here is Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1965 sermon, “The American Dream”, in which King argues against the “myth of time” and the “myth of education,” saying that we can’t wait for education and time to resolve problems of inequality. Instead, we must be “maladjusted” to an unequal society:

“[T]here are some things in our social order to which I’m proud to be maladjusted. I call upon men of goodwill all over the nation to be maladjusted until the good society is a reality. I never intend to adjust myself to the evils of segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to become adjusted to the madness of militarism, and the self defeating effects of physical violence.

And I think now it has come for men all over the nation and all over the world be maladjusted to all of these things. For it may well be that the salvation of our world lies in the hands of the maladjusted. And so if you will allow the preacher in me to come out now, let us be maladjusted.”

Here is Langston Hughes’s poem “Let America Be America Again.”


Here are some of the songs I tend to return to on July 4:

Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn”

“My Country” by tUnE-yArDs

“4th Of July” by Soundgarden

“American Tune” by Paul Simon

“Walking In The Snow” by Run The Jewels

“Cruel Country” by Wilco

“Sleep Now In The Fire” by Rage Against The Machine (the video for this, directed by Michael Moore, is also very powerful.)


Here is the context of Cornel West’s remarks on hope in America

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