I used to think Independence Day was bullshit. I used to think the United States was bullshit.
A bunch of rich, white guys came to this land from Europe, used biological warfare to weaken the native children of this continent, reneged on treaties made with those peoples and then proceeded to attempt cultural genocide through Christian missionary activity.
The treatment of Native Americans at the hands of the US Government is a sin. And I firmly believe that embracing the values and vision of our native brothers is the key to building a better future for our children.
These same men profited from the sweat, blood and tears of the men and women whom they brought here in chains and treated worse than animals.
The institution of slavery was a sin and the ensuing continued racial prejudice in America is a sin.
Our ancestors, both black and white, built this nation together. After many centuries of living side-by-side even the “whitest” and “blackest” amongst us are mixed. I refuse to call myself “black” or “white” or any other such nonsense... such labels are limiting, inaccurate and are the very root of racism. I am not one ethnicity or another. My heritage is diverse. To reject diversity would be to love my father and hate my mother or vice versa. My ancestors come from many different lands and cultures. I am mixed. I am American.
Today we get to celebrate the birth of a government that has lied to its own people, fostered dictators and terrorists abroad and that has time and again betrayed the very ideals upon which it claims to have been founded.
For all these reasons I used to think the 4th of July was bullshit.
These reasons have not changed. If anything, I am even more passionately committed to the values of diversity, respect for the land, and peace than I was when I was a hot-headed 18-year old.
Yet one thing has changed.
This is the first year that I feel truly patriotic and proud on Independence Day.
Even in the midst of vast political and financial corruption... even in the midst of seemingly unending, poorly justified wars... I am, for the first time, truly proud to be not only a citizen of The United States, but also a patriot.
I have learned that you cannot truly know a man unless you are familiar with the story of his life. Likewise, we cannot truly understand our nation or our government without being familiar with its long history.
That history did not begin in the 1960’s with the civil rights movement.
That history did not begin in the 1800’s with the women’s rights movement.
Nor did that history begin in 1760’s.
The rich, white, male-chauvinist slave-owners whom we call our “founding fathers” were human beings. They came into this world the same way you and I did: ignorant... and dependent upon dysfunctional parents for their survival and education.
These men were also born into a world where there was no such thing as free speech or free press. They owned slaves, yes. The institution of slavery was something they inherited from the British and it had already been around for some 200 years. As a matter of fact, these men were keenly aware that many of their own ancestors were de-facto slaves to The King and to his extended family of slave-holders, the so-called “nobility.”
You see, what your social studies teacher called “feudalism” is a euphemism for slavery. And what she called a “peasant” or a “serf” was really just a slave.
In fact, the feudal economy was supported by a vast system of slavery. Forget about free speech... freedom of any kind was a privilege of the upper class exclusively.
However, within the womb of medieval Europe, a great civil rights movement was conceived: the middle class.
Changes in the economy and in technology led to a growing class of people who were neither members of the nobility nor serfs.
Artisans, bankers, shop-keepers, entrepreneurs and small business owners began carving out a better life for themselves and for their children’s children.
It took centuries.
The power and authority of Church and Crown were so deeply entrenched and those institutions were so fearful of losing their power and privilege that they attempted to keep this growing middle class down at every turn. Taxes, wars, inquisitions and witch hunts were waged over and over again in an attempt to keep people ignorant and obedient.
But our ancestors resisted.
They created secret societies because to “speak truth to power” in those days was to court death. Only amongst trusted brethren sworn to protect one another could free-thinkers even begin to explore such ideas as democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, education... these were taboo in the middle ages. These radical ideas were branded “evil,” “satanic” and “treasonous.”
These early free-thinkers knew that they would not see justice in their lifetime. They developed these radical ideas and whispered them in secret to their sons and daughters. These ideas spread. Enlightened priests and monks sought to reform a corrupt and murderous Church. Visionary aristocrats patronized bold new artists who encoded these ideas in their frescoes, statues and music. Shop-keepers and stone-cutters eventually became prosperous enough to educate their children. Slowly, a better-educated middle class came into being.
When Europeans began colonizing the Americas, the descendants of these radical thinkers recognized the possibility of founding a civilization free from the heavy hand of Church and Crown.
Put yourself in these men’s shoes. Have you ever seriously thought of overthrowing your church and government? Have you ever considered the tremendous courage and cooperation that would take? How would you cope if you lived in a world where the things you post on Facebook or Twitter could land you in jail or the electric chair?
I have asked myself these questions.
And I have explored the lives and the writings of the men who did these things. I have reconsidered the contributions of these “rich white slaveholders.” Just like you and me they were human beings. Just like you and me they were right about some things and wrong about others. Who am I to pass judgment? Sometimes I have acted with good insight and grace. Sometimes, out of my own ignorance, I have done and said ugly things. If I can, in any way, count myself better than the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence it is because I am standing upon the foundations they built. If we are able to reach farther then they, it is because we are standing on their shoulders. For all their personal flaws, these men were well-educated free thinkers and they, in turn, were the descendants of a long line of men and women who were subject to slavery and injustice yet kept the flame of truth burning in their hearts.
God Bless America.
Not because America is good or even special
But because we have inherited something precious and we are blessed with the opportunity to appreciate, protect and preserve what freedom we have so that one day our own descendants might stand upon our shoulders.
And when they do, I pray they will forgive us for our ignorance and for our flaws and appreciate that we are doing the very best we can today with the tools we have been given.
Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton, William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn, Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr, Thomas Lynch, Jr, Arthur Middleton, John Hancock, Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton , Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross, Caesar Rodney, George Read, Thomas McKean , William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris, Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark , Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery, Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott and Matthew Thornton...
...I thank you all.
May my generation be worthy of their inheritance and may your wisdom and counsel continue to inspire us.