Independence Day for Whom?

About a week after the Supreme Court rolled back the Voting Rights Act under the make-believe pretense of racial equality in America, it seemed as good a time as any to appraise the notion of "Independence Day."

The High Court has told us that race is no longer a barrier to voting less than a year after 180 new voting restrictions were rolled out in 41 states.

Less than 48 hours after the Supreme Court's decision, six of the nine states that had been covered by the Voting Rights Act's "preclearance" formula had already taken steps to restricting voting. Officials in states like Texas, Alabama and North Carolina flew like "gleeful children released from detention" to their respective statehouses to fully gerrymander their districts and pass voting restrictions that just happen to most affect black and brown folks -- cuts in early balloting, the end of same-day registration and Sunday voting before Election Day. But we shouldn't be surprised. This is par for the course in the land of the free and home of the brave.

Somehow the election of a black president has made us all equal. But African Americans still make far less money than whites, our unemployment rate is twice as high and the wealth gap between blacks and whites has increased, not closed.

Our children go to overcrowded and underequipped schools, their parents are targeted by banks for higher interest rates, and the most exotic and toxic mortgages, and every one of us is more likely to be arrested for nonviolent crimes, more likely to be jailed if arrested, and more likely to serve time if tried.

The pattern of continuing discrimination whether in the legal system, educational system or monetary system is pervasive and impossible to overlook for anyone willing to open their eyes.

At this very moment we're debating whether a man who followed a 17-year-old home from a convenience store and then shot him dead on a neighbor's lawn is guilty of murder or just a concerned citizen well within his rights to stand his ground. And whether or not a woman accused of telling employees she would really love to have "a bunch of little niggers to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties" to complete a "southern plantation wedding" is racist or not.

We are African, and we happened to be in America. We are not American. We are people who formerly were Africans who were kidnapped and brought to America. Our forefathers weren't the pilgrims. We didn't land on Plymouth Rock. The rock was landed on us. We were brought here against our will. We were not brought here to be made citizens.

At least that's how Malcolm X saw it. Those are his words, but every year when the fit starts to hit the shan, they get me thinking.

When the Founding Fathers of this great nation proudly adopted the Declaration of Independence, they conveniently left our people out. When Thomas Jefferson wrote in indelible black ink, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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," I have to wonder how he could go back to his slave plantation and live with himself.

Recognizing this abject hypocrisy, English abolitionist Thomas Day wrote in a 1776 letter, "If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves."

More simply, my high school African-American History teacher used to say, "It wasn't our independence day."

Despite the great virtues espoused in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, the fact that they were created in a time when we were slaves, in a time when becoming three-fifths of a human was an upgrade makes the documents' supposed sanctity a bit hard to swallow.

How do we deal with this conflict as black people? How do we, the descendants of people who were forcibly taken from their homeland, inured in centuries of dehumanizing servitude and denied the basic dignity that should be afforded to every living being, come together on a day to celebrate the founding and creation of the very country responsible for such treatment?

While it seems that the majority of America celebrates the past and the present, as African-Americans we celebrate the future. We have to. It's been our interminable optimism that has gotten us through the perpetual suffering and sadness that is our American history. We don't celebrate and honor the horror of the past. We celebrate the fact that we were able to survive and persist and make a better future for our children.

It's even in the words of the black National Anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing":

"Stony the road we trod, bitter the chast'ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet,
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way
that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path
thro' the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from a gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam
of our bright star is cast."

More than anything else, that song illustrates what it means to be black in America. It means that you have to reconcile the torrid and often abhorrent issues of the past and the lingering inadequacy of the present with a continued hope for the future. But that struggle and conflict is not exclusive to African-Americans. A history fraught with indignity is the story of every group that comes to America.

The Puritans who came and settled this country were fleeing religious persecution. The people they met when they came, the Native Americans, were run off their land and slaughtered to the point that they exist now almost exclusively in fractions of a percentage in cities or on so-called reservations. The first and second wave of Irish, Italian, Jewish and other European immigrants were literally treated like animals, spat on and shunned when they first arrived here. And of course, there was the horrific treatment of the Chinese immigrants who built the railroads that allowed Americans to crisscross the country in a way they had never done before.

We are not alone in our struggle and many ethnic groups still face struggles against bigotry, hostility and outright racism to this day.

But what we celebrate on the Fourth of July isn't the idea that America was perfect or that it is perfect; we celebrate the idea that America can be perfect. Despite all its failings and shortcomings, when the Founding Fathers created the Constitution they created a country that has given us almost limitless potential for change and for improvement.

As African Americans, our freedom was not given to us on July 4, 1776, but nobody's freedom was. The Declaration of Independence was just that, a declaration. Freedom in this country isn't something that's given to you by a declaration; it's something you fight for. Then, as now, a declaration was just the beginning. The framers knew that signing a letter wouldn't grant them their freedom from England, so they fought. They fought and died in a war that featured a number of African Americans who, even then, believed in the power and importance of the country that we call home.

The war for independence is one that black folks are still fighting today. So many of our people are free from the physical shackles of legalized slavery, but have yet to be freed from mental slavery. For us, perhaps, Independence Day is less a celebration of independence achieved and more a recognition of just how far our struggle has come. On the Fourth of July we celebrate what we've endured, what we've accomplished and how much further we can still go.

Power concedes nothing without a demand. This is what our America has always been, a land littered with uncertainty and unfairness, but one that affords us immeasurable and unparalleled opportunity to be our greatest selves. And that is perhaps as it should be, because our indelible struggle has manifested our inimitable identity.

Facing the rising sun of a new day begun, let us march on 'til victory is won.