I will not welcome the 2021 Fourth of July with a joyous celebration. Instead, I will embrace the holiday as a time for introspection, a time to reexamine many of our national narratives. We are today a nation that has never lived up to our founding myth and it is time for us to take stock and correct our ways.
My introspection begins with the words of Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave, speaking to a white crowd gathered in 1852 for an Independence Day Celebration in Rochester, New York.
Douglass, who became an American reformer and statesman, applauded the authors of the Declaration of Independence. They were, he said, “brave men and for the good they did and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.”
“I Am Not Included”
He then altered course and clearly spelled out America’s glaring hypocrisy: There is “a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance that separates 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… My business, if I have any here today, is with the present. The accepted time with God and his cause is the ever-living now.”
Three things strike me about this speech. First, this former slave recognized and honored those who brought the idea of America into being; second, ten years before emancipation, this black man had the immense courage to tell his white audience that their country was not living up to its ideals; and third, Douglass (who had been whipped and beaten by his former “owners” and certainly had cause to be bitter and seek revenge) tells them to focus on “the ever-living now.”
A Stain on Our Soul
But I am certain that by invoking the present Douglass wasn’t suggesting that we should forget the past, that we should consider our national conscious cleansed of slavery’s dark stain on the soul of white America. No, I think he was calling his white listeners to take ownership of the nation’s tragic shortcomings and to correct them. He was demanding action “now” that would distribute the inheritance of justice, liberty, and prosperity equally across all Americans, regardless of race.
Today, 169 years later, the indelible stain of slavery remains, and it cannot be washed away…not ever. We white Americans can bandage our tragic flaws and our immense white privilege in red, white and blue bunting. We can continue to live the myth that we today are a nation of justice, equality, and liberty for all. But to do so would be living a lie.
The general principles of freedom, justice and equality remain elusive for many in America today, and those of us who enjoy an outsized share of the benefits have a responsibility to ensure that they become blessings to all. Throughout the nation’s history (and continuing today) law, custom and bigotry have blocked avenues of full freedom for people solely because of their race.
Time to Work Together
The streets of America today are alive with young people of all races who are ready to take ownership of this country and end our hypocrisy. They are demanding––not asking, but demanding––that America’s unequal justice system; America’s economic, educational and social disparities; and America’s imbedded white racism be excised and replaced. It is time for their elders to stand with them in the ever-living now. It is time for all of us to come together and work together to ensure “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence bequeathed” to us is shared equally by all Americans.
As Nick Bryant suggests in his new book, “When America Stopped Being Great,” our homeland has never been the country that was envisioned in our founding principles. But that doesn’t mean that we should accept the status quo. Instead, we are called by our posterity to hold fast to those principles and to make them tangible in the lives of all Americans.
Bill Jamieson’s career has included leadership positions in business, government, and education. He was also an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church and his ministry centered around advocacy for low-income families and children.