In northern Minnesota, the 4th of July just might be the holiday that surpasses Christmas in its power to pull families together for an all out celebration blow-out. Perhaps because it occurs during, arguably, our most beautiful season - Summer! For many, it’s “meet at the cabin”, hang out the flag, BBQ, beer on ice, and of course, fireworks — and let’s try to outdo the neighbors! Yes, we tend to go all out for Independence Day but often overlook what the holiday is really all about. Maybe, this year will be different.
Not sure about you, but lately I find myself embroiled, too frequently, in vociferous debates about what our country stands for. What are its core guiding principles? Moving on, “And are we living up to them?” And if any of those “hot button” issues gets thrown in, like “Where were you born?” and “When and how did you get here?”, the conversation swiftly shifts to the big underlying and often unspoken question, “Who has the right to be here?” Touchy stuff! I think most of us know what I’m getting at. Welcome to America. The Land of the Free. The Home of the Brave. Hh-hm. Excuse me while I clear my throat.
Once, America, this “Land of Immigrants”, was a haven for the “huddled masses”. But in 2019, it doesn’t seem quite fitting for our country. Our history is more complicated than this. Often we forget that before this benevolent invitation etched on the Statue of Liberty, we were more aptly a land of colonialists. Our fair continent had been seized from its original inhabitants and divvied up primarily between the British, French, and Spanish. Once the first peoples of the continent had been pushed aside and overrun, with an apparent goal of total elimination, the new arrivals recognized the vast wealth and opportunity of the “New World”. Feeling the effects of colonial rule, they sought, and fought, to take greater control over this new land and defend their way of life, which at that time included owning slaves when slavery was about to be abolished in England. Nothing short of full independence would do.
The 4th of July is our day to celebrate “full independence” from overseas oppressors headquartered in Britain who had no interest in the colonists well-being, other than that which could be extracted or harvested “for the Crown”. The colonists reaction? “How dare they treat us so badly?” The phrase, “Give us liberty or give us death!” best summed up their outrage. In fact, the “founders” were so upset that they went to war to make their point. Amazingly, they won! That’s how important the concept of “freedom” can be! Freedom from disregard, oppression, and exploitation. Freedom from threatened annihilation!
We’ve been described as a “nation of immigrants”. It’s true. Since its inception, our shores have received wave upon wave of migrants coming from other continents hoping to help build this nation and someday call it their own. Most of us needn’t go back very far in our ancestry to find stories of the desperate and brave. My father’s grandparents left Ireland in the mid-1800s to avoid starvation when crop failure and colonial oppression triggered mass famine. It was “Leave Ireland or die.” If they made that treacherous journey to America, they and their children might survive. In the 1890s, my mother’s father fled Greece during a tragic civil war. His widowed mother paid the steerage for her 15-year-old son to board a ship to America, hoping he’d survive the journey and eventually send for his younger brothers. I can only imagine their fear, not knowing if they would see one another again. Arriving alone at Ellis Island, Grampa George sold newspapers in cities en route to Detroit for a real job. He met my grandmother in a Windsor, Ontario dancehall. They married at 18 and 16 respectively, against her parents’ wishes. It was said, because “Grampa’s skin was too dark.” They settled in the Brightmore neighborhood of Detroit, raised five children and later became proud American citizens. Mom always hung the flag with fanfare, on every federal holiday, especially July 4th, in homage to her immigrant parents!
It’s understandable why we honor our family immigrant stories, and recognize their sacrifices and contributions made to this nation. But we should never forget that this land belonged, and in many places still belongs, to dozens of sovereign nations comprised of those whose ancestors lived here first. Tribal people lost their land and much of their way of life so that we can continue to live and regenerate here on this magnificent continent. We should remember it was their knowledge and generosity, that allowed for the earliest European arrivals to survive. The resilient spirit of First Nations’ peoples still permeates the land upon which we all walk.
When that ever-so-precious document, the U.S. Constitution, introduced us as a new nation, aspiring for “liberty and justice for all”, the writers could not have predicted how hard it would be to implement. Or who would actually reap the benefits of those laudable goals? And that question remains unanswered today. Meant to outline our most fundamental rights, it has continued to be a “work in progress” for nigh onto two and a half centuries since its signing! And the meaning of “liberty and justice for all” continues to trigger vicious long-lasting debate over the intended definition of “all”.
The great sages, representing varied cultures and traditions, remind us of the oneness of creation, including that of all human beings. Despite centuries of ignorance or insensitivity, this great truth remains. There should be no “exclusive club”, with specific criteria determining to whom dignity, respect and the “inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” can be ascribed. Compassion and justice must never be doled out on the basis of skin tone, gender identity, annual salary, surname or first language. Down with the notion of “worthiness” because who ultimately decides who is “worthy”?
This year, come the 4th, maybe I’ll hang my flag with a little fanfare, and acknowledge the privileges that being an American has afforded me. I want to remember the people who have made my life here possible and celebrate my freedoms. And finally, I’m re-upping my commitment with others to help shape this nation into a more hospitable and welcoming place. Happy holiday, with peace and justice for all!