It’s an urgent question today, and I fear the answer is likely “no,” although I’d love to be persuaded otherwise. This compelling message from Amanda Johnson of the Working Families Party offers some interesting food for thought. I reproduce it here in observance of the Fourth.
July 4th is upon us. We’re all excited to spend time with friends and family grilling at BBQs and watching fireworks.
But as we celebrate our nation’s foundational myth, we owe it to ourselves to grapple with some of the darker parts of our story. The 4th of July in 1776 was a moment of revolution and democracy, but also a moment of colonialism, genocide, and slavery.
This founding tension is still with us today. We do ourselves no favors by closing our eyes to its presence in our lives. If we’re going to live in a country where everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we need to have important, difficult conversations about how we build an America that will truly live up to its promise for everyone.
As we gather this July 4th, let’s try to answer the difficult question author Michelle Alexander asked in November: “Is America Possible?”
“In the words of William Faulkner, ‘the past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ What many of us have been attempting to do—build a thriving multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-faith, egalitarian democracy out of the rubble of slavery and genocide—has never been achieved in the history of the world. Some say it can never be done. Is America Possible?”1
We know these conversations can be difficult to have. Try to approach this conversation from a place of personal connection and shared values, and understand that without this important work, we cannot have real change. We know it’s tough, but it’s worth it.
We’ve made a list of conversation starters to get you going:
- What is your experience of freedom? How is your experience of freedom different from other folks? What are things you can do that others can’t?
- What kind of America do you want to live in? What’s keeping that America from being possible for everybody?
- What can we do to make our neighborhoods and communities safe for people of color? What are you doing to stand up for racial justice? If you’re part of a resistance group, how are you working with groups led by people of color?
- How do we build communities where both safety and justice are the norm? How do police interact with different communities? What are alternatives to calling the police?
Having this conversation is a national tradition. On Independence Day in 1852, abolitionist Frederick Douglass said:
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”2
The U.S. was built by slaves, immigrants, and working people of all races for a small class of wealthy, white male land owners on land stolen from native peoples. This legacy of slavery, colonization, and exploitation still lingers today—in the shootings of Philando Castile and Charleena Lyles and lack of justice, in the exploitation of migrant labor, in the poverty of Appalachian coal towns and abandoned neighborhoods of post-industrial cities, in the construction of a dangerous pipeline on the lands of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.
It lingers in our national myths that anyone can secure a prosperous future with enough grit and hard work —never mind the generations of public policies and corporate practices from Jim Crow to redlining to predatory lending to subprime mortgages to “too big to fail” that have put that prospect of security out of reach.
If we’re going to build an America that looks like the one we have in our hearts, we need to get to work today—and that work starts by acknowledging our past and creating a shared vision with one another.
I hope you and your family have a happy July 4th.
1. Michelle Alexander, Facebook. Nov. 13, 2016.
2. Frederick Douglass, “The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro.”
Amanda and the Working Families Party ask that you pledge to have a conversation about America with your friends and family.
Of course, the real conversation needs to take place with people who are not your friends and family. Good luck with that.