Creative Sensemaker #6

The sixth instalment of Creative Sensemaker, a new cultural series by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

By Peter Hoskin   Above image: 'National Anthem' by Kota Ezawa (Courtesy of the artist and The Whitney Museum of Art)   Friday 3 July, 2020   Long read

Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media. And today, as a great US president once said, we celebrate our Independence Day. It’s time for barbecues, parades and fireworks…

Or is it? In truth, this year’s Fourth of July celebrations are even more complicated than usual.

This is still an occasion that is worth marking. In pure historic terms, the Declaration of Independence made against British rule by ‘13 united States of America’ on 4 July 1776 is no small thing. And neither is the accumulation of holiday traditions, both across states and within families, over the decades since.
But this is an Independence Day during a pandemic, and a pandemic that’s worsening in most of the 50 modern states of America. The number of daily coronavirus cases in Florida, for instance, has risen by more than 200% over the past two weeks. Families will not be meeting up to share stories and corn on the cob. Parades have been cancelled.

And then there’s a question that has rung through the centuries: independence for whom? It should be noted that, in 1776, the Declaration of Independence came over a century after entire tribes of Native Americans had been wiped out by European settlers. It came some 89 years before slavery was legally abolished in the United States. And, lest it need saying, it came 244 years before this year’s protests for racial justice.

The very concept of Independence Day is, for many, so compromised and contaminated that they seek alternatives. In a special Creative Sensemaker two weeks ago, we focused on one: Juneteenth, 19 June, which marks the date in 1865 when a Union general issued an order that effectively ended slavery in Texas.

For their part, cultural and other institutions are working to mix celebration with due contemplation. For example, at the very beginning of 4 July, midnight EST, the Whitney Museum of American Art will stream Kota Ezawa’s National Anthem, a watercolour animation of football players who followed Colin Kaepernick by taking the knee – the video will then remain online over the weekend.

There are other events you can stream, including a mysterious version of the famous Macy’s fireworks display. Or you can, of course, turn to your own bookcases, DVD collections, record libraries and gaming consoles. Here are some tips from us:
Two book covers on a grey background.
A book cover with an American flag on it.
‘This Fourth July is yours, not mine’, speech by Frederick Douglass, 1852 
Independence Day sure is a holiday with source documents. Among the most important is this speech delivered by Frederick Douglass in 1852 in Rochester, New York. Douglass was an enslaved person who escaped his captivity and then, among many accomplishments, became a prominent writer and reformer. He asked of his audience, ‘What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?… This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.’

American Scripture by Pauline Maier; Slavery’s Constitution by David Waldstreicher 
Then there is the Declaration of Independence itself, which has spawned an entire subgenre of literature. Pauline Maier’s American Scripture tells a complicated story very well, about how those 1,337 words came to be and what they led to. David Waldstreicher’s Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution To Ratification unpicks how the Declaration – which didn’t mention slavery once (in fact, an anti-slavery passage was removed) – protected the interests of slave owners.

Independence Day by Richard Ford 
If you’d prefer some fiction, Richard Ford’s Independence Day really is one of the great American novels with one of the great American protagonists – Frank Bascombe, divorced, displaced, and drifting between responsibilities on the holiday weekend. It’s the second in a series of books that began with The Sportswriter in 1986, although you don’t need to have read its forerunner to appreciate Ford’s portrait of a man and a country enduring a difficult middle age. 
A group of men performing on stage in period soldier's uniforms.
An American policeman waving in panic at a crowd on a sunny beach.
Hamilton (Disney+)

With a conductor’s sense of timing, Hamilton comes to Disney+ today. It’s a filmed version of the original Broadway production, so it should feel a bit like a (dearly missed) night out at the theatre. And new fans will be able to watch Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop account of the Founding Fathers for less money and certainly with less queueing.

It also comes in the same week that Disney+ announced a new ‘visual album’ by Beyoncé – another sign that the streaming service is diversifying beyond its megalithic cartoon, Star Wars and Marvel franchises.

Jaws (Amazon Prime, 4K Blu-ray) 
There’s an elephant in the room: the movie that’s actually called Independence Day. But let’s turn instead to the shark in the room: Jaws. There’s not much that needs saying about Spielberg’s monster movie and proto-blockbuster, except to remind you that it also takes place on the Fourth of July weekend – which is why the greedy mayor of Amity Island doesn’t want to close the beaches. Oh, and it’s just been released in a new 4K edition.
‘Americans’ by Janelle Monáe (Spotify)

A lot has happened even in the two years since Janelle Monáe released her third album, Dirty Computer, but nothing that’s staled or diminished it. The protest song ‘Americans’ may as well have been written for this Independence Day weekend: ‘This is not my America’, it says in a passage that quotes Dr Sean McMillan, ‘until black people can come home from a police stop without being shot in the head.’ But there’s a good dose of hope (and funk) in it, too: ‘Because it’s gon’ be my America before it’s all over.’

‘Independence Day’ by Bruce Springsteen (Spotify) 
It’s weird how many things are called ‘Independence Day’ when you start to think about it – another is this song from Bruce Springsteen’s 1980 album The River. It really has nothing to do with the holiday; it’s a plaintive ballad about the distance between a maturing son and his father. But perhaps that’s right for what should be, this year, a more reflective occasion. Besides, for those who’d rather a star-spangled sing-along, the Boss also has you covered.

‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ by Jimi Hendrix, Woodstock 1969 (YouTube)
Speaking of star-spangled, we’ll take any excuse to replay Jimi Hendrix’s contorted, distorted version of the US national anthem at the 1969 Woodstock Festival. It caused quite a furore at the time, not least because it was taken – by fans and detractors alike – to be a form of protest against the Vietnam War. But Hendrix downplayed it all in a wonderful interview on The Dick Cavett Show later that year: ‘I don’t know, man. All I did was play it. I’m an American, so I played it.’
A computerised image of a man in a spacesuit holding a foetus in a jar.
Death Stranding (PlayStation 4)

This was a peculiar game when it came out at the end of last year. In July 2020, it’s still peculiar, but now it also feels prophetic. The main character is (you are) a delivery man, taking one laboured step after another to help reconnect an America that’s been fractured by a cataclysm. Your efforts help other real-world players, just as their efforts help you, and you can trade ‘likes’ between each other – a remarkably healthy form of social media. Other than that, there’s ghosts, interdimensional whales, grenades made of urine… the usual. 

The New York Times recently published a profile of Death Stranding’s creator, Hideo Kojima, which is worth catching up with. 

Best wishes,
Peter Hoskin,
Culture Editor
Tortoise Media
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