July the Fourth is coming up at the end of the week. How will you celebrate our nation’s independence?
President Donald Trump, a traditionalist, is planning to observe a fireworks display at one of our national monuments that cannot be toppled by protestors, Mount Rushmore. Park officials are concerned that the pyrotechnics will ignite wildfires, but greater danger may lie in the socially un-distanced crowd that will be attracted to the event.
Your celebration may be more restrained than the president’s, due to Pandemic 2020. Large neighborhood Independence Day parties and fireworks displays have been cancelled in the interest of public health and social responsibility.
The pandemic has given us a glimpse of apocalypse, as well as more time to think than we’re accustomed to. And the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd have focused our attention on our racial history.
The nation is in a skeptical, questioning mood. Statues and monuments that glorify the Confederacy and white supremacy have fallen, and military bases that honor rebel officers may be renamed. Our critical disposition provides the occasion to reconsider our most hallowed national holiday, July 4.
Independence Day commemorates the declaration of our independence from England, but it wasn’t a happy day for all Americans. In 1776, Native Americans, for example, faced a century of genocide to make way for the westward expansion of our burgeoning nation.
And Independence Day was no great gift to Black Americans. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, and in 1833 it abolished slavery itself throughout nearly all of the British Empire. Without Independence Day, Black Americans might have been free by 1833. Instead, in our young nation they faced decades of slavery, a bloody Civil War and many more decades of de facto social suppression that has yet to be resolved.
Colonial white women welcomed independence from England, as well, but the Constitution did not afford them the same rights as those enjoyed by men; they wouldn’t be permitted even to vote until 1920!
So July 4, 1776, is a day worthy of commemoration, but the idea that it represents independence and freedom for all Americans is a white, masculine conceit upon which we should probably cast the same skeptical eye that we are turning toward the Confederacy.
So let’s remember the day that our nation declared its independence from England, but let’s not glorify it beyond the credit that it deserves. Besides, too many of our monuments, statues and celebrations look backward, commemorating a past that we rarely bother to understand as fully as we should. In fact, too often our interpretations of the past tend to separate us, rather than bring us together.
Thus, I propose a forward-looking national holiday, not one that replaces July 4, but one that gives us room to more accurately understand our history, including Independence Day, and provides us with an opportunity to celebrate what our nation has become and can aspire to.
Let’s give it a bland, uncontroversial name, “National Day,” the annual occasion when we acknowledge the flaws of our founding and the shortcomings of our history, but also celebrate our commitment to do better going forward. Every American who believes in democracy, freedom, diversity, unity and equality can embrace such a national holiday.
Let’s celebrate National Day every May 25, the day George Floyd was killed. Floyd wasn’t a hero, nor was his death the most brutal ever experienced by a Black American at the hands of a racist. But Floyd is the Black Everyman, and the police officer who casually killed him is an apt representative of what happens when authority is compromised by racism and malice.
The brutal image of Floyd’s life being slowly squeezed out of him galvanized the nation to take a hard look at the racial crimes and inequalities of its past and present.
Let’s observe May 25 every year as our “National Day,” the occasion that celebrates the day in 2020 that began our honest reckoning with the past and activated our resolve to do better, for every American, in the future.