For July 4th observances this year, President Donald Trump plans a reprise of last year’s “Salute to America” in Washington. And on Friday, he will attend a fireworks display and military flyby at Mount Rushmore, where pyrotechnics have been banned for years. Environmentalists, Native groups and public health experts are objecting, but the celebrations appear likely to proceed as planned.
It’s unfortunate, because this year the nation could use a more sensitive and inclusive observance of its identity. It’s a year to take stock and reflect on the spasms that have convulsed the country — namely, the virus that has killed more Americans than were lost in the Vietnam and Korean wars combined, and the horrendous events that began on Memorial Day with a Minneapolis police officer’s knee on George Floyd’s neck. This Independence Day is an opportunity for soul-searching. It’s a time to ponder how well the country has succeeded at the goal passed down in the preamble to the Constitution: to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Whether we can do that depends on who we mean when we say “ourselves.”
A good place to begin the soul-searching is Frederick Douglass’ speech of 168 years ago, titled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” As a man born into slavery himself, the abolitionist leader knew that when the Founders said “ourselves,” they were not talking about him. His entire speech is worth reading, but here is a bit of it:
“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 of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
Douglass was raising his voice against slavery, the evil of his time, and not the systems of white privilege that he would be attacking if he were alive today. But it is hard to read his words without thinking of the turmoil that has rocked our cities in the weeks since Floyd’s death. “For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder,” he declared. “We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused … .”
That conscience has indeed been roused. We are seeing at least the stirrings of a national reappraisal that could bring lasting change. American society is asking questions about implicit bias and institutional racism that have for too long gone unaddressed. To paraphrase Douglass, a change has now come over the affairs of humankind. This Independence Day, that change demands our attention.
‘Hamilton’ comes to the small screen
On Friday, Disney Plus will begin streaming a movie that could become an Independence Day tradition: a filmed version of the live-stage production of “Hamilton,” performed mostly by the original cast. The plan had been to premiere the film in movie theaters late next year, but the COVID-19 pandemic persuaded the producers to change those plans. “I’m getting messages every day from folks who had tickets to ‘Hamilton’ and can’t go because of the pandemic,” the creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, told the New York Times. “So moving up the release so everyone could experience it this summer felt like the right move.”
It’s a welcome addition to this holiday weekend. Not only does “Hamilton” explore the American Revolution; it does so with voices and vernacular that reflect American diversity. The show asks a pertinent question: “Who tells your story?” The founders thought of “ourselves” as themselves — that is, as white men. If “Hamilton” can help expand the circle of “ourselves” in the American imagination, it comes not a moment too soon.