What to the slave is the Fourth of July? I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of glorius anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us.
(Frederick Douglas July 5, 1852)
This Fourth of July 2020 is probably the most exceptional in American history. On this memorable day in 2020, the COVID-19 rages nationwide, and protests against systemic racism and civic unrest embroil the country. This celebration of American democracy, freedom, and justice is the most conflicted that many will recall. Divisions of every sort are highlighted: protests against racism and police brutality, protests against those protests, and protests against the wearing of masks.
On this day in 1776, a monumental document was created, a glorious document, a virtuous vision of democracy. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This document with its broad ideals did not acknowledge -- or intend to -- the exceptions to the ideals expressed therein.
The questions of pride in America and to what degree one should be proud to be an American remain foremost in the minds of many as the holiday was celebrated this 2020. There was much talk about patriotism, loving America, being proud of America as the Fourth of July approached. African Americans were asked if they celebrated and the degree to which they were proud to be American. Many will recall the criticism faced by Michelle Obama during the presidential campaign of 2008, when she expressed her feelings about the first time, she felt proud of being an American. Pride is associated with one’s own feelings of deep pleasure or satisfaction. Were her feelings legitimate? Had she experienced in her life the pleasure and satisfaction of white Americans? Had her experience as an American differed from that promised by the Declaration of Independence?
The issue of patriotism -- or anti-patriotism -- on the behalf of protesters against racism was hotly debated. The word patriotism keeps cropping up as Americans are finding ways to express the freedom promised them in the Declaration of Independence. While many black and white Americans believe that making America accountable to stand up to her ideals was the most patriotic thing that they could do, their protests were regarded by many white Americans as being anti-American and anti-patriotic.
From white Americans across the country could be heard, “We’re celebrating our independence, our freedom.” Have and do African Americans and other persons of color experience that same sense of independence and freedom? Is it possible to see through eyes of empathy and compassion that despite the idealistic rhetoric of freedom and justice, all Americans do not fully experience America in the same way?
As we look at this document today, we must ask as Frederick Douglas did 168 years ago, if the words and the intent apply to all Americans. In 2020, can we as a nation say that we believe that all men are created equal? Are there some Americans who still are viewed as less than, less valuable, less deserving? Do we truly believe in the equality of all Americans? Do we even see all who consider themselves to be citizens as true Americans? When we close our eyes briefly and imagine who is an American, what is the first image that comes to mind?
The issue of “rights” is critical to consider. Are rights the same as privileges? And if so, who as Americans should be the beneficiaries of these rights? Are some Americans, based upon skin color or ethnicity, more deserving of rights than others? Do African Americans and others who have not experienced America in the same way as white Americans have the right to express their feelings and dissatisfaction?
How might Americans after this Fourth of July 2020 come together to consider how to make America the nation in which all Americans experience the promises of the Declaration of Independence?
Will living up to the promises of the Declaration of Independence make America the nation in which all Americans can rightfully be proud?