Independence for whom? | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Independence for whom?

The Fourth of July is upon us. A day when many celebrate “Freedom” and others reflect on what “Freedom” would look like when it is finally won. Growing up, we had sparklers, fireworks and, a picnic BBQ. But as I got older, I started to wonder about the holiday.

It wasn't one specific thing that made me rethink how or if I should celebrate it, but several.

The first was hearing the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall refer to the United States Constitution as “defective from the start” in 1987, noting several errors, including the continuation of slavery, and the opening words “We The People” leaving out the majority of the people living in the United States at that time. The addition of amendments, updates, changes, and Bill of Rights in the 200+ years since is proof that there was — and is — so much work to be done.  

Though he was not discussing the Declaration of Independence, Marshall’s words made me think of other landmark documents that have shaped the United States of America. Where are the other flaws and oversights? Clearly a country in the state of turmoil that we find ourselves in today is far from perfect. And when we consider the lopsided state of economics, education, health, environment — based on color of skin and gender identity — we can say fairly that the United States is still in the process of evolution, or sadly, potentially, a devolution.  

My second awakening regarding the Fourth of July began when I heard the full Declaration of Independence read aloud on NPR. I stopped in my tracks when I heard these lines:

"... the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction, of all ages, sexes and conditions."

Genocidal European settlers hellbent on so-called Manifest Destiny, who killed 90 percent of the Indigenous people through warfare and disease, as well as white male slave owners, calling anyone else a savage is the very definition of hypocrisy.

On July 5, 1852, while the United States was still very much a slave-holding country, before the Civil War even began in 1861, Frederick Douglass gave a keynote address on Independence Day (proof that no matter what the state of Black America, White America wants to hear good news from us).

But Mr. Douglass did not satisfy in his speech called, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

“... Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn ..."

I, too, wonder what to celebrate on Independence Day when the document at the basis of this holiday has a goal to own enslaved Africans and kill First Nations people.  Can we reframe, rededicate what the United States of America can be? Or is a nation built on genocide and slavery that refuses the reality of its past and present forever scarred?

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