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Independence Day’s real meaning

I like fireworks. I love getting together with family and friends to enjoy a summertime celebration. And a long weekend is always welcome. So on the whole, the July 4 holiday is okay with me.

As for Independence Day—the reason we take July 4th off of work—my feelings are mixed. On the one hand, I honor the epochal fight that the American colonists waged for freedom from colonial rule. Their victory signaled an era of Enlightenment ideals about human rights and democracy moving closer to reality.

And yet, those ideals have not become reality. Despite what many of us were taught in school, they weren’t even fully expressed by the men we credit for founding this country.

Yes, the Declaration of Independence that Thomas Jefferson wrote says that “all men are created equal.” But of course, he and the other property-owning white men in Philadelphia had a very different definition of “all” than we have today. One that would not have included me.

So, along with the cookout, I spent some of this holiday weekend reflecting on all who were excluded from that declaration. Every woman on the continent. Every kidnapped and tortured African. Every human being living on the land before the Europeans arrived with disease and violence. According to the revolutionaries we celebrate on the 4th, none of these millions of people had inalienable rights endowed by their creator. I honor those whose independence went undeclared in 1776.

And I see that year as only part of the story of our country, a prelude to the Constitution these same men would write a decade later. This hallowed document wrote the rights of a majority of people out of existence—and set a trap that would block these rights for centuries. The framers constructed a process that could broaden the group included in the protections of the Constitution, yes. But it stacked the odds, requiring an Amendment to be approved by Congress and ratified by two thirds of the states.

The United States, granting its landmark freedoms to its ruling class, built a system that legally enslaved, oppressed, and excluded Black people, Indigenous Americans, Asian Americans, Latinx Americans, women, other gender minorities, the poor—everyone other than land-owning cisgender white men like its founders.

That is our nation’s original sin that continues to shame us today. Just this month, the Supreme Court claimed a Constitutional basis to deny women control of our bodies. A hard-fought battle for this freedom was won almost 50 years ago, and now five men and one woman have rolled it back.

We’ve seen this pattern before, recently with voting rights. It took a Civil War to ratify amendments preventing enslavement—with a brutal exception that has led to mass incarceration, and a social backlash that maintained white supremacy in every institution in society.

Conservatives and their Supreme Court judges say they want to return to the ideals on which this nation was founded. They are succeeding. We have a republic that preserves the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of the founding fathers and those like them. And it leaves the rest of us unprotected and unbelonging.

So, this Fourth of July, I enjoyed the fun and community. And, like the great American Frederick Douglass, I also mourned the cruelty and narrowness of the “independence” we settle for while remaining hopeful of our ability to create change and achieve the promise of an America for all of us.


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