July 4th is my favorite holiday. Independence Day. The birth of the greatest nation on Earth. Yes, I am proud to be an American, “where at least I know I’m free.”
I can still hear that song playing in my memory, watching the fireworks explode over my head as a kid. We always watched the fireworks with my grandparents. But my grandfather stayed home because the fireworks brought back war memories.
As much as I hate war, I am proud of my grandfather’s service. I can’t image the horrors he experienced on the beaches in the Pacific during World War Two. I’ve read books about it, watched movies about it, but I still can’t fathom it. My grandpa is now resting in peace.
Another reason I like July 4th is that it’s the least commercialized holiday. I don’t feel obligated to do anything or buy anything. You barbecue, drink beer, wear red-white-and-blue, and blow things up.
The last reason I like July 4th is that we are celebrating the most profound political Declaration ever made:
We are all created equal. This is self-evident. Our dignity does not need to be conferred by a King or any government. In fact, the only purpose of a government is to protect our natural rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. If any government tries to deny these God-given rights, or starts to value its own power more than the inherent dignity of the people, that government needs to go.
That’s deep. Those words inspired a collection of diverse peoples to come together to fight against a powerful nation.
In my U.S. history class, we try to go deeper with the concept of Independence. What does it mean to declare independence? When is enough enough?
What would it mean to declare psychological independence in a relationship?
Would it be patriotic for students to declare en masse, independence from a paternalistic education system?
Is it an act of patriotism when a rich NFL quarterback kneels during the National Anthem to express his concern that too many unarmed black men are getting shot to death by the police?
Does his kneeling dishonor my grandfather’s service?
Does it matter that the author of the Declaration of Independence was a slave-owner?
How do you square the Declaration of Independence with the fact that, in 2017, blacks are incarcerated at a rate five times higher than whites?
How do you square “at least we know we’re free” with the fact that the U.S. has a higher incarceration rate than any other country in the world?
What are we celebrating, anyway?
The beauty of a text is the ability for interpretation. The spirit of a text matters beyond the original context for which it was written.
The Declaration was used in its original context to fight against British subjugation, and it can be applied hundreds of years later, by people who live under the American flag, to hold power accountable to its tenants.
Frederick Douglass, 1852, giving a Fourth of July speech, railed against the hypocrisy of slavery in a “free” country, the evils of the slave trade, and the travesty of the Fugitive Slave Law. But he ended his fiery speech with an affirmation:
“Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery.
“‘The arm of the Lord is not shortened,’ and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from ‘the Declaration of Independence,’ the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.”
Martin Luther King Jr., 1963, speaking at the Lincoln Memorial in his famous “Dream” speech, started by affirming the spirit of the Declaration:
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note …
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
American society today is very divided.
President Trump spent the weekend brutally insulting TV show hosts, complaining about “Fake News!” and accusing 23 states of disloyalty for refusing to turn over voter information to the federal government. A Republican secretary of state from Mississippi said that Trump’s commission making the request could “go jump in the Gulf of Mexico.”
In 2017, our national birthday causes division. There is an article published today by the Associated Press about blacks, Latinos, and immigrant right’s activists having mixed feelings about the Fourth of July.
“‘There’s a lot not to be proud about when celebrating the Fourth of July,’ said Janelle Astorga Ramos, a University of New Mexico student and daughter of a Mexican immigrant. ‘Even though it’s a time to celebrate as a country and (for) our unity, it’s definitely going to be on the back of our minds.'”
Blind patriotism is foolish. The Fourth of July is not about blind patriotism. The Declaration of Independence does not endorse blind patriotism.
No, the United States is not perfect or nearing perfect when it comes to honoring the Declaration. Maybe we’re taking a step backward before we take another step forward.
If Douglass can be hopeful in 1853, and if Dr. King can be hopeful in 1963, we can certainly be hopeful in 2017.
I think Ramos has it mostly right. I would say there is a lot to be proud about when celebrating the Fourth of July. Yes, injustice should be in the back of our minds. Some have the luxury of having it less in mind than others. There’s still work to be done. But it’s time to celebrate as a country and for our unity.
Cheers to the United States of America.