July 4th and Its Contradictions

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

– Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again,” written in 1935

I always have contradictory feelings about July 4th. On the one hand, it is the day that the 1776 Declaration of Independence was issued, an essentially anti-colonial call to action against the British Empire. It is a revolutionary document. The preamble, in particular, doesn’t pull its punches:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

But this document, speaking of contradictions, has this to say in the very last point enumerating the specific oppressive actions taken by the British government: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has 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.”

The practice of chattel slavery for people of African descent was widespread in the American colonies. And it still was 76 years later when Frederick Douglas gave his famous “What to the Slave is the 4th of July” speech:

What to the American slave is your 4th of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

And women in 1776 and for another 140 years had no right to vote, in addition to all of the many other ways that a patriarchal, male-dominated culture abused and subjugated them.

Today, in 2014, chattel slavery and legal segregation have been outlawed, the US government’s shameful treatment of Indigenous peoples historically has been somewhat moderated, and women have the right to vote and are increasingly winning victories toward full equality. But even with our first President of African descent, institutionalized racism, sexism and inequality are far from eliminated.

In addition, our rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are severely impacted and compromised by the fact of rule by the much-less-than-the-1% over the rest of us and the fossil fuel industry’s continuing hold over most Republicans and some Democrats in the federal government. Indeed, with the deepening of the climate crisis and spread of extreme weather events, the entire world’s right to a decent future is threatened by the power and wealth of the dirty fossil fuel industry and its corporate and government allies.

The concluding verses of Langston Hughes’ powerful “America” poem, 80 years after they were written, make clear what we must be about, what we must pledge to do this July 4th weekend:

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

Ted Glick is the National Campaign Coordinator of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. He can be followed on twitter at http://twitter.com/jtglick. Read other articles by Ted, or visit Ted's website.