The document signed more than 200 years ago declaring the United States’ independence from Britain contained within it inherent contradictions.
While the Declaration of Independence declared “that all men are created equal,” endowed with the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” the laws that followed did not apply to Black or Native Americans, nor women. Leaders often speak about the United States as a “melting pot,” built by immigrants from all over the world, but the country has not always been welcoming to newcomers, either.
This Fourth of July, Americans are grappling with a global pandemic and an intense period of political and social unrest, driven by calls to reform policing and address systemic racism that dates back to the country’s founding. While some people see the holiday as a chance to celebrate democracy — or “the greatest political experiment ever tried” — others are questioning what it means to be patriotic, and whether the country is fulfilling the promise of its founding for everyone.
Sixty-two percent of Americans who responded to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll feel the country is getting worse, and are deeply divided over how to handle the coronavirus and protests sparked by the death of George Floyd.
Some respondents to a NewsHour callout said it was a positive reminder of “the potential to change, the hope that someday we will live up to our national values.”
To many, the Independence Day holiday simply means a day off of work, fireworks, and barbecues. But it’s clear that many are thinking more deeply about the holiday this year. Below, readers reflect on what July Fourth means to them.
‘I don’t feel independent from the oppressors of the past’
Many Americans of color whose ancestors were disenfranchised from the start said the Independence Day holiday engenders complex feelings.
“As an American descended from slaves, we weren’t into it,” Valerie Brown, a 49-year-old Black woman from Brooklyn, wrote of her family’s feelings about the Fourth of July growing up.
The hypocrisy of the holiday was not lost on the abolitionist and scholar Frederick Douglass, who in 1852 delivered his famous address, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
In it, he spoke about the “sad sense of disparity” that existed between Black and white Americans at a time when slavery had not yet been abolished.
“I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary!” he told the mostly white crowd at an event in Rochester, New York commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence. “Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us.”
Jonathan Lande, a Purdue University history professor who recently wrote a column for the Washington Post arguing that “The Fourth of July is a Black American holiday,” noted in an email to the PBS NewsHour that “Black Americans who decided to participate in July Fourth celebrations did so because they considered themselves part of America, and they wanted to mend the nation.” In his research of July Fourth celebrations from 1827 to 1865, Lande found that many Black Americans treated the holiday as an opportunity to “sanctify and reflect,” meditating on what America could be, even while many remained enslaved.
Lande added that because Frederick Douglass embraced America, he embraced the Fourth of July. But not all Black Americans agreed that they must struggle to be American. Lande added that Black leaders like Martin Delany, Mary Ann Shadd, and Henry Highland Garnett all considered leaving the U.S. and founding a new country instead.
Christopher Storm, who leads a Black Lives Matter chapter in Milwaukee, said that he identified with Douglass’ speech decrying the hypocrisy of the Declaration of Independence. He said he was born in Jefferson Davis hospital in Houston, named for the former president of the Confederacy, and has been surrounded by reminders of white supremacy his whole life: “From the get-go I had white supremacy stamped onto me.”
The protests taking place this summer, Storm added, are a reminder of the oppression that people of color in the U.S. have always faced. “I been seeing things like George Floyd going on since forever,” he said. “Racism is not new. It’s always been a problem, it’s just being filmed now. There are so many George Floyds.”
For Native Americans, too, Independence Day celebrations can feel strange. The Declaration of Indepence, as an article in Smithsonian Magazine recently noted, purports that King George had “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.”
“My family are Mvskoke Creek tribal members and having our ancestral lands stolen, millions killed, tortured and raped…doesn’t give Indian folk much to celebrate,” wrote Donna K. Cobb of Hoover, Alabama.
Alex Furtado, a 30-year-old Hispanic man from Boston, said the term “Independence Day” does not resonate with him. “I don’t feel independent from the oppressors of the past,” he wrote. “I still see it in different forms and expressions in American society today. I still see how I and others internalize the narratives of these oppressors.”
Mixed feelings for immigrants in America
President Donald Trump has made tightening immigration a cornerstone of his administration. His policies have sought to limit immigration and drastically reduce the number of people who can seek asylum in the U.S. They have also led to the separation of thousands of immigrant children from their families, many of whom have been held in overcrowded and poorly run detention centers.
Rogelio Saenz, a professor of demography at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said that these policies, combined with the hard hit that Latino communities have taken from the COVID-19 pandemic, may make some immigrants reluctant to embrace the July Fourth holiday. Many of the Latino immigrants targeted by the Trump administration are fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and Saenz noted that it has become harder for many of these people to seek citizenship — or even asylum — in the U.S.
Saenz said the spirit that the U.S. has tried to perpetuate “of the hard worker out there doing everything they can to make sure the country moves forward” is exemplified by many immigrant workers on the front lines today. “But at the same time you don’t have the appreciation, the embracing of what they do,” he said. “They’re essential, but they’re also seen as disposable.”
Patricia Keith Mathisen, 75, who currently lives in Merida, Mexico, recalled teaching people from other countries about the holiday when she worked in refugee camps elsewhere in the world. “We would make it a learning experience for the refugees who were about to leave for the U.S.,” Mathisen wrote. “Most countries don’t do much to celebrate their National Day except for a parade, but for us, perhaps more than any other country on the face of the earth, it is such a big deal!”
She said this year, though, “with the virus and the existence of the concept of ‘Independence’ being so much in jeopardy as a result of the current administration,” she would be reluctant to celebrate.
“Our government has never treated immigrants with respect, even though that was one of the expressed purposes of our independence,” said 31-year-old Douglas Pocock of Washington State, citing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the deportation of Mexican immigrants in Operation Wetback, and the recent travel ban barring immigrants from several mostly Muslim countries.
Americans that hail from territories like Puerto Rico, which is not given voting representation in Congress, might also think differently about the holiday. As a Puerto Rican, Stephanie Fuentes said the July Fourth holiday has prompted her to consider “what it looks like for all the American citizens that are on the island now and how independence doesn’t even translate the same unless they’re on the mainland.”
An opportunity to reflect
“Each year, I don’t just celebrate the birth of our country on July Fourth. I use it as a time to check in and see how we are doing on the task they left for us,” said 40-year-old Ann Hooper of Austin, Texas. “The patriots involved in the American Revolution were certainly flawed as individuals, but collectively they created documents, a nation and ideals that we should all continue to strive to achieve.”
“July Fourth should be a day when we renew our determination to strive for ‘liberty and justice for all,’ not a day for patting ourselves on the back for achieving those ideals for a privileged few,” wrote Sarah Taylor, of Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Scott Tucker said that the Fourth of July holiday symbolizes the “spirit of America” to him: “ We recognize that we’re a work in progress and that our symbols are of ideals and principles, not of a snapshot of who and where we are now.”
The question for some, then, on Fourth of July, is how well America has held up to its promise of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” for all.
The recent protests indicate that this sort of reflection is not limited to the Fourth of July. “In 1852, Douglass compelled white Americans to look at themselves to better the country, much as protesters are doing today,” historian Jonathan Lande said of Frederick Douglass’ address 168 years ago. “It was important then and is important now to discuss inequality and mend America.”