The Birth of a Nation

Yesterday afternoon (July 3rd) I attended a birthday party. There were several friends in attendance, clad in red, white and blue, and a table was heaped with delicious food. Instead of attempting to buy hundreds of candles, the party planner decided to purchase a “2” a “3” and a”5” in honor of the birthday girl’s special day. 

As the attendees sang Happy Birthday to America (not the Stevie version, I regretfully inform you), they followed up by chanting USA, and dug into a steaming hot apple pie.  I watched with amusement and a bit of melancholy envy because I’ve known the birthday girl, America, my entire life but oddly enough I’ve never celebrated her birthday with such fervor.

Let me be clear. I am an American and very proud of it. I have always recognized the 4th of July with some type of celebration whether it be fireworks or a cookout; who can really complain about a holiday that is a guaranteed day off?

Unfortunately, when I reflect on our “Independence Day” from Britain, the Liberty Bell seems to ring a little off key for me. Yes, it is true that on or around July 4, 1776, the United States did move to declare her independence from Great Britain. But how did our “independence” from Britain change the lives of Black Americans? Was their freedom in any way secured? Did they toss aside the chains of slavery and march forward to citizenship? We all know the answer to the preceding questions are “not really”; “no”; and “no” respectively. 

The second sentence of the Declaration of Independence states “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.”

We’ve heard this line so many times that it almost seems rote. But read them again. You’d think it was a line from an abolitionist’s speech. When I hear “all men are endowed with the right to liberty,” my bosom doesn’t swell with pride in my country’s Founding Fathers. I’m filled with disbelief, disgust and pain. How could you pen those words and continue to support a system of slavery? How could Congress approve that declaration and not also approve the end of horrible crimes to humanity?

I know what some of you are thinking:

  1. Slavery is over; get over it already. I’m not going to get into a long drawn out dissertation about how the descendants of slaves and slave owners continue to reap burdens and benefits respectively, because that makes people defensive. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the day we are expected to look back on with moist eyes makes my wrists ache with the inherited memory of slavery.
  2. Why can’t you feel good about celebrating your own country’s birthday? Yes, America was born that day. Unfortunately, the America born that day was not created with my interests in mind. No kind thought or consideration was made about me and my family’s wish to have life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness. My ancestors and their children were considered less than men, not even actual people. What else can you derive from the statement that “all men are created equal” when people of African decent are not considered a part of this group?
  3. Blacks weren’t the only group without rights. Only white men that owned land were even able to vote. Why take it so personal? You don’t see white women complaining. Well this criticism is easy to deflect. Lots of other groups were (and continue to be) marginalized. But Blacks and Native Americans -those who didn’t die of disease or run off- didn’t even have the right to life sans shackles. Marginalization >>> shackles.

I’m going to say it again because I’m sure many of you don’t believe me. I’m proud to be an American. I’m glad we’re not a group of colonies. I love living here and wouldn’t want to live any place else. Everyone, self included, reaps the benefits of being free of rule from the British. However, a holiday entitled Independence Day is quite misleading, all things considered. Independence was selective; freedom in the US from the Brits, slavery to the US for others. The so-called American dream was recognized for a good chunk of Americans that day in Philadelphia. A celebration is indeed in order. But a good deal of reflection on how America can ensure that the ideals represented in that Declaration are represented in our country today is much more productive, and in my opinion, more patriotic.

Happy Fourth. Enjoy the birth of a nation. Just don’t call it Independence Day.