Happy Independence Day! This year Tom and I will be celebrating the 4th of July with a picnic followed by fireworks at dark (about 10:30). The fireworks are being shot over the lake from the other side of the harbor, so we should be able to sit out on the dock and watch them as they are reflected in the lake. I’m looking forward to that.
This year we are celebrating the 4th of July on an Indian Reservation. Hmmm. But this last year we have been in several national parks that have made me think about Independence Day in a different way. Since July 4th last year, we have lived on a civil war battlefield, where people died to set slaves free – an institution deliberately left in place by those founding fathers in 1776. We have lived on a revolutionary war battlefield, where people loyal to their home nation fought against those who wanted to govern themselves. And now we are living on an Indian Reservation with the connotations of colonialism and mass genocide in our nation’s history.
The Declaration of Independence is a document we often read on Independence Day. We find the first paragraphs moving and many of us can quote them from memory:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
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.
These are meaningful, important words. They are also ironic today because we understand that when the founding fathers wrote “all men”, they really meant white, wealthy, land-owning men. Many of these men owned slaves and had killed Native Americans while stealing and settling their land. The men who wrote the declaration were the beneficiaries of the system of oppression they were creating. Today we continue to deal with the repercussions of their narrow view of “all men.”
I am grateful to live in the United States. Most of the time I think it is the greatest country on earth. But today, as I celebrate my freedom, I remember that there are still millions in this country who live in fear, who have to hide who they are, who have been murdered because they stepped out of line. Today I read the whole Declaration of Independence and noticed, for the first time, the line in it about the Native Americans: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
After I read the Declaration of Independence, I read Frederick Douglass’s speech “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro” delivered in 1852, before the Civil War. I also read a 2016 essay written by Lavonya Bennett on “The Meaning of the 4th of July to Marginalized People.” While we celebrate our freedom, we need to remember that we have a long way to go.
For me, today is a kind of memorial day. We celebrate and enjoy our day. But we also remember those who have died in the cause of freedom – and I don’t mean just soldiers. Native Americans who stood against soldiers and settlers trying to take over their country. Black people that were brought to this country in chains and who we continue to enslave. People who are abused and killed because someone with more power (or fear of differences) decides they should be. People who are turned away from voting because they aren’t the right color, or have the right religious views, or vote on the right ticket.
People who say “my country, right or wrong” scare me. Just like the founding fathers, I want to love my country when it is doing the right things, and stand up against it when it is not. Because standing against injustice and oppression is the only way we can make our country what it should be and lead it to a greatness it has never yet known.