Five years ago, over the course of several months, I had the joy of teaching my daughter American history.
My children were in their fifth year of homeschooling and my wife had asked me if I was interested in teaching — I eagerly accepted. For weeks, we slowly worked through conversations of a foreign people showing up in an inhabited land, growing from an insignificant cloister of individuals seeking religious freedom to a mass of many forcing the First Nations communities westward, while painfully persisting under the thumb of Great Britain to the east. We talked through the Sugar and Stamp Acts, the Boston Tea Party, the Continental Congress, the “shot heard round the world,” Thomas Paine’s Crisis Papers, and eventually, the Declaration of Independence.
I’m fortunate that my children’s school lessons were bounded on the weekdays with my wife’s daylong curricula and weekly homeschool association gatherings, and in the evenings and weekends by walking with me through marches, vigils, rallies, and a great many conversations across Chicago intersecting faith and justice. Throughout the lessons, I could see the gears of my daughter’s 10-year-old mind grinding until the day she asked me a simple, yet powerful, question: “Wait … what about the Black people, Dad?” This was a moment of awakening for her.
I’d wager that amidst the parades, days off from work (for many but not all), countless cookouts, and, of course, fireworks, most Americans can’t imagine how complex and complicated our Independence Day can be for the many Americans to whom it never applied. Perhaps they simply don’t know our country’s history.
On July 4, 1776, when the Declaration was adopted, slavery was rampant. An original draft of the document pointedly exposed Britain’s “cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended [the king], captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain.” Yet, the block was removed and its replacement text pacified because a number of southern states had no desire to call out Britain for the same sins they were guilty of. So for another 87 years — 89 for Texas — Black Americans would remain in slavery. These two points alone lift up the complication, but there is an even greater challenging reflection.
Conversations with my daughter began to focus on persecution and liberation. Fresh into the world of Black Lives Matter and deep into street marches and rallies after the murder of Laquan McDonald, her mind attached the threads of her history lessons to the tapestries of the present reality. She equated the British soldiers shooting colonists in the streets of New England to the police shootings of Black Americans in our modern-day streets. And as we began to process the text of the Declaration, she began asking even harder questions about why slaves could not fight for their own freedom.
These questions she asked at 10. I did not begin asking those questions until much later. While taking an undergraduate Black Studies course at Virginia Tech, I discovered David Walker, an abolitionist, activist, and, undeniably, one of the first Black liberation theologians in this country. Through countless speeches and publications, including four articles published in 1829 as “David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World,” Walker called for the abolition of slavery and equal rights for Blacks. As a Christian himself, he challenged the hypocrisy of American Christians supporting slavery, and through a historical and critical theological lens of the Bible and western civilization, masterfully, condemned the nation’s governmental and church leaders with creating a chattel system of slavery worse than anything experienced in the Bible or across modern history.
In the fourth article, he reminds America of its commitment to humanity. “See your Declaration Americans!!! Do you understand your own language? … ‘We hold these truths to be self evident–that ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL!!’ … Compare your own language … with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers and yourselves on our fathers and on us–men who have never given your fathers or you the least provocation!!!!!!!” But he also challenges the country to consider the fullness of what the Declaration presents. “Hear your language further! ‘… when a long train of abuses and usurpation … it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.’” Yet, we all know that this was a right and duty for some Americans and not all.
My daughter — perhaps for the rest of her life — and potentially an uncountable number of young Black Americans, will have to ponder this hard question: why was it OK for a nation of colonists to overthrow and revolt against the British yet, even today, the thought of such actions by slaves or Blacks is nothing less than patriotic heresy? In all truth, Blacks were not considered three-fifths of a human — they were not human at all. The Three-Fifths Clause was only a compromise to give southern slaveholders greater political representation in Congress. They simply didn’t count.
This is the pain, conflict, and complication of our Independence Day — we are celebrating a holiday that was created for some and not all. And while many things have changed, America still lives with the stain of a historical reality it rarely chooses to acknowledge. For proof’s sake, simply continue reading past the preamble every middle-schooler has to memorize and, yes, even today, we will find the words, “merciless Indian Savages” eternally persistent as descriptions of our native sisters and brothers.
In 1852, eleven years before the Emancipation Proclamation, abolitionist Frederick Douglass was asked to give a speech for Independence Day. Appealing to God and the nation, he shocked the audiences with one of his most remembered speeches. “Why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? … 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 July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
Can we risk being as honest as Douglass? Through all the festivities, celebrations, parades, sermons, speeches, and gatherings, I wonder how many Americans — from all races, ethnicities, and faiths — will voice the true complexity of Independence Day. The Fourth of July may be a holiday that was created for some, but let us make it a holiday that remembers all.
A version of this post originally appeared at www.communityrenewalsociety.org.