On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress declared independence from Britain. Two days later, they approved the draft we know as the Declaration of Independence. The document was first presented to the public on July 8, and it wasn’t until Aug. 2 that most of the signatories put their names to the document.
We lump all of these events together into one celebration this weekend. And, it is an event worth celebrating. It is worthwhile to look back, honor our past and celebrate the great things our nation has done. But, amid all our red-white-and-blue hoopla this weekend, we, as a nation, need to look back and see the greatness that never was.
The history most of us have been taught of America as a great “shining city on the hill” that stands for equality, freedom and justice is at best a partial truth. For white, Anglo, Christian, heterosexual men, the version of America we’ve been taught largely holds true. If you’re all those things — white, straight, Christian and male — America has been, since Independence, the land of opportunity for you.
But this partial truth hides a glaring lie. Throughout our history, being anything but a white, straight, Christian man has meant the great hope of “truth, justice and the American way,” has been withheld from you by force, by law and by systemic injustice.
Much of what we will celebrate this weekend is a highly filtered version of America’s history that glorifies our greater aspects while ignoring the great evils we’ve committed to form, build and sustain this republic. In truth, what we celebrate this weekend is patriotic myth — the ghost of an America that never existed.
This is not to say Americans have not accomplished many great things. We have. But have we, as a collective, been a great society? Have we been the great nation we laud with fireworks and patriotic speeches on the Fourth of July? In short, can we call ourselves great, when we’ve never been great for all Americans?
The Declaration of Independence is a great document. But, can you be great while enshrining slavery into the birth of a nation?
Our industrial revolution gave humanity incredible advancements in technology and manufacturing — advancements made at the expense of child labor and immigrant workers who slowly starved to death while they worked. Great?
The building of railroads and western expansion — great accomplishments. But, is it a great nation that grows by committing genocide of the indigenous population?
In the early 20th century, American cities rose to eclipse their older European cousins. But in those cities, Jim Crow flourished, women were barred from voting and children starved.
We defeated the Nazis. But at home, we pushed citizens of Japanese descent into internment camps, and Black Americans who fought overseas could not vote or eat at a lunch counter when they came home.
In the second half of the 20th century, we made great advancements in science and technology. We did so while testing nuclear weapons on American troops, and turning police dogs, firehoses and batons on Black Americans who dared dream of an America in which they could vote.
Today, we are the world’s largest economy — which apparently is the only measure of greatness for many Americans. That economy relies on a worldwide network of slave labor to make our cheap consumer goods, rapes the planet as we spiral toward cataclysm, pushes children into cages and continues to oppress people of color, women and LGBTQ Americans.
Every stage of our greatness, from 1776 to today, has been marred and offset by violent oppression, genocide, exploitation and injustice.
I know many will read this and claim I hate America. No. I signed on to defend this republic with my life — a vow I retain today. I admit, when I raised my hand 26 years ago, I did so seeing only mythologized America. But, today, I fight for and dream of America not as it has been, but as it should, and can, be.
There have been many great Americans — men and women, of every sexual orientation and identity, from every religion and of every color God ever drew from His endless palette. But America herself, as a nation, has never been great. Because, no matter how many great things we do, or how much we build, earn and spend, we can never be great while marginalizing and oppressing the children of God and destroying the gift of this, our only planet.
As we prepare for Independence Day this weekend, let us declare our independence from the myth of an America that has never existed. Let us devote ourselves to the promise of America as it should be, and always should have been.