The telling of American history is heavily politicized these days. Attacks on so-called “critical race theory” stray close to the defensiveness of White nationalists. Calls to “honor America” by standing for the Star-Spangled Banner are controversial. We’re a nation sharply divided over what is “our” story as Americans, and what is not.
Mary Elliott, the Curator of American Slavery at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, saw this year’s July Fourth as an occasion when all Americans can “mark the nation’s independence and its paradox.” She noted that “the combined holidays of Juneteenth and July Fourth, that fall so close to one another on the calendar, provide a moment for all of us to consider the meaning and manifestation of a more inclusive freedom, even as the fight for justice continues.”
Our paradox of justice and injustice was captured brilliantly 160 years ago by the great Frederick Douglass. From the Year 1852, here is a small part of the heroic orator’s commentary:
“…[W]ho is there so cold, that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that, the dumb might eloquently speak, and the ‘lame man leap as an hart.’
But such is not the state of the case. I say it with 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 between 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 July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
May we never forget the paradox of our celebration, the mourning for injustice and the call to freedom that would make right the wrongs of our history.