When I mentioned the Fourth of July holiday recently, a Black colleague named Rebecca made an offhand comment: “Of course you know it isn’t our Independence Day.” She was so sincere and matter-of-fact; I nodded as if of course I knew that, although in truth I didn’t.
I’m not surprised by her words, but no one had ever said that to me before. I’ve learned a lot about race in America these last few months. Thanks to current events, light now shines on injustice and inequality in a way that it didn’t before (for white people, anyway). We are more earnestly having The Conversation About Race.
This conversation isn’t always pleasant. I’ve seen a lot of vitriol from white people on social media, upset that Black Americans recognize a different Independence Day (Juneteenth). Some don’t like that the NFL will play “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” (also known as the Black national anthem) before early season football games. These are the same people who indignantly ask why some colleges have Black student unions (“But you could never have a white student union!”) and insist on declaring that “All Lives Matter.”
We don’t all get it yet. It’s painful to realize that the America we think we know isn’t the America others experience. The truth is sometimes brutal.
Our country was founded on ideals so lofty that we have to keep aspiring to make them our reality. We have spent the last 200-plus years patting ourselves on the back for adopting Thomas Jefferson’s idealistic declaration, but we bristle when anyone points out that we aren’t there yet. In fact, we have a long way to go.
And we don’t have the luxury of brushing aside our collective failures as someone else’s fault – our current situation doesn’t come passively from the natural progression of a monarchy or a dynasty or tribal traditions. It is created by each of us, every day. We share the burden of holding ourselves accountable to our founders’ vision and we are responsible for our stewardship of it.
When Rebecca said July 4th “isn’t our Independence Day,” she was referring to herself and our other Black colleagues. Upon reflection, I think her comment applies to all of us. No one deserves “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” until all of us have it, fully and equally. These universal freedoms Jefferson wrote about in the Declaration of Independence are not our accomplishments – they are our goals. America is The Land of Unfinished Business. So, on this, our 244th birthday, let’s get to work.