It’s hard to reckon with the Fourth of July this year. More than any other time in my lifetime, we feel not like a country united, but a country radically divided — divided by ideology, by skin color, by income — and also physically divided by a worldwide pandemic that requires us to keep a literal distance from other people.
Listening to NPR’s annual reading of the Declaration of Independence, I was struck by the contradictions to the high principles expressed there that exist within that brief document itself. There is a reference to representative houses opposing the British Crown with “manly firmness” (as if women aren’t pillars of strength as well). Native Americans are referred to as “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
And that does not account for the fact that when those documents were written, the only members of society who might enjoy the full privileges offered by life in the colonies were white men, let alone the fact that, according to Dr. Rosemarie Zagarri, 20% of the population of the 13 colonies in 1776 were African Americans, most of whom were enslaved.
After the Declaration reading concluded, NPR’s Noel King asked Dr. David W. Blight — Sterling Professor of American History at Yale; director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition; and author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Frederick Douglass — what Americans should remember when they consider the Declaration. He responded:
That we are unfinished… That nothing about our history is static. We can honor the Founding Fathers. We can admire the genius of those principles. But look how unfinished we are. That’s exactly what Lincoln called the American republic in the Gettysburg Address. It was unfinished.
This is part of the American dilemma. We like to think that we were, you know, born pure and then got more pure. And that’s just not true. (Laughter) I mean, it’s always this kind of experiment trying to make and remake, make and remake itself. And the trouble is, of course, that we only do the remaking out of terrible crises and often violent crises.
So we may be on the verge now of some kind of new civil rights regime that it is our responsibility to create. If so, we want to think we’re going to get it right this time. But it’s always unfinished.
This idea of being “unfinished” really struck me, though it’s a tough pill to swallow. We want to think that we nailed it in 1776, we “finished” this country and created ideals that were immediately and eternally true, and that everything has been wine and roses since then.
Some politicians reinforce this viewpoint. Yesterday, in fact, our president gave a speech at Mt. Rushmore and used repeated superlatives to talk about our country:
July 4th, 1776. At those words, every American heart should swell with pride, every American family should cheer with delight, and every American patriot should be filled with joy because each of you lives in the most magnificent country in the history of the world and it will soon be greater than ever before….
No nation has done more to advance the human condition than the United States of America and no people have done more to promote human progress than the citizens of our great nation….
We declare that the United States of America is the most just and exceptional nation ever to exist on earth.
This doesn’t sound like the words of someone who accepts that we are at all unfinished, or ready to wrestle with our past, or even that we have any flaws whatsoever.
In a 2018 episode of On the Media that was re-broadcast yesterday, host Brooke Gladstone spoke to Peter Weissenburger of Taz newspaper in Berlin. Weissenburger’s comments spoke to the discomfort of living in that “unfinished” state in Germany, a country that has had to — and still has to — wrestle with its own murderous Nazi history:
The controversial thing is about it is that once you start, you’re never going to be done. So there’s no such thing as dealing with it and then finally having dealt with it. And I think that’s what makes people so afraid to start dealing with history at all. There’s no point in which we can say okay, we’re done now. This is always gonna be what happened. There’s always gonna have been millions of people who were killed in a racist, fascist killing machinery, and a whole society of bystanders.
I had a conversation with industry colleagues from other countries this week, and realized how much every country has some similar legacy to deal with, whether colonialism, fascism, white supremacy, genocide, religious oppression, apartheid, slavery, lynching, or segregation — or, often, multiple of these uncomfortable histories. These histories are real and can’t be wished or ignored or equivocated away.
But it’s hard to be in a place of constant discomfort in dealing with all of this. I can understand why people don’t want to do it. It’s painful to look directly at the worst thing ever done, whether this is your own personal worst deed or your country’s. But until we start to reckon with it, we cannot start to heal.
The same segment of On the Media I referenced above concludes with Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and leader of the creation of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, providing thoughts on why this is worthwhile, though excruciating:
I want the nation to have the courage to own up to that, with the knowledge that if they own up to that, they won’t be condemned by it, that there is something on the other side of it…. We are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. We are more than a country that perpetrated the genocide, we’re more than a slave society, we’re more than a lynching society, we’re more than a segregation society. But we cannot ignore that bad thing we did. And there is redemption waiting. There is recovery waiting. There is reconciliation waiting. There is something that feels more like justice than what we have experienced in America. There is something better waiting for us, without this burden, this history of racial inequality holding us down. But we can’t get there through silence, by pretending that the history doesn’t exist, we’ve gotta own up to it.
That’s what I’m going to keep in mind this Fourth of July — not an unrealistic picture of unwavering American greatness and exceptionalism, nor the unbearably bleak picture of only her (our) worst deeds, but the realistic middle path that we haven’t ever fully lived up to the nobility of the original ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence: “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.” And, being in that constant state of “unfinishedness,” we probably never will. But acknowledging ownership of both our brilliant and honorable ideals, as well as our worst deeds, gives us the best shot at moving forward as a truly great country.