Friday, March 25, 2011

Cesar Chavez day

I don't remember celebrating Cesar Chavez day in California when I was an undergrad a decade ago. I don't know if that's because it's a holiday that was more recently adopted, or because it's just not a holiday that was celebrated at 'tech. They do celebrate at UCSD, which I suppose is unsurprising given it's a state school.

I didn't mind the day off, and I don't think it was a bad thing for Derrick either, given he's been a little under the weather and resistant to taking a day off to recuperate (funny thing about people who truly love what they do--it's hard to get them to take a day off, even when they should!). Yesterday Derrick was explaining the upcoming holiday to his parents, and then complained a bit about it. His complaint (which I sort of agree with) is that it's silly to have a bunch of holidays celebrating different civil rights leaders.

I completely agree that we should have a day set aside to celebrate all the different civil rights movements that have done so much to benefit all the non-white, male, propertied people in the country. But having a day dedicated to Martin Luther King ignores all the other people who worked toward black civil rights in the '60s and ignores the other civil rights movements that have shaped this country. It ignores the emancipation of blacks, which was arguably a more important rectification of the mismatch between the ideals of the constitution and the actual practice of law. When asked to speak on the 4th of July, Frederick Douglass said,

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine.


The founding fathers were visionary men, who recognized the existence of inalienable rights, granted not by virtue of the whim of a ruler, but as natural rights all men deserved. Unfortunately, their definition of men extended only to white men who owned property. Blacks, native Americans, women, and members of basically any other group were denied this "inalienable rights." The battle--and it was a battle--to extend the rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights was long-fought and had to be re-fought for every separate group in some way. Many, many people sacrificed time, money, and effort working to convince those who enjoyed the privilege of the Bill of Rights to extend those rights to others.

From that standpoint, it seems silly to privilege the civil rights efforts of the '60s, and even more silly to recognize only one or two of the men (and none of the women) who worked so long and so hard for the ideals of freedom. It also seems a worthwhile exercise to consider how different the rights provided by the Bill of Rights were in the early 1800's compared to our interpretation of them today.

So, Derrick mentioned Cesar Chavez day to his parents, and was a bit dismissive of it, basically because he thinks it silly to have a day for each civil rights movement. Really, if we were to memorialize each one, or each leader, with a holiday, our calendar would be littered with days commemorating civil rights. His parents agreed--a little overmuch. His dad said something like, "I don't see why we have any civil rights holidays."

To which I responded, "That's because you're a white male. You've never had to worry about civil rights."

That may be one of my best conversation-enders yet.

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