Demanding Independence on Independence Day

Written by Guy Nave

As Americans celebrate Independence Day amid a national reckoning over racism and a reconsideration of the symbolism of Confederate monuments, I’m reminded of a question Frederick Douglass asked in 1852, “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?”

While this Independence Day marks 244 years of American independence from Great Britain, there can be no national independence in the absence of national equity and equality. How can Americans celebrate American independence when unarmed black people in America have been murdered with impunity under modern policing for more than 100 years?

What does it mean to celebrate Independence Day in a country that glorifies and honors men who rebelled against the United States of America–forming the Confederate States of America? What does it mean to celebrate Independence Day while protecting statues of men who killed more than half a million Americans in an effort to preserve slavery?
While the President of the United States has issued an executive order protecting confederate monuments from damage, he has passed no legislation ensuring the protection of unarmed black Americans from murderous police officers.

How can Americans celebrate independence when people supporting slavery are lifted up as examples of “a great American heritage” while people fighting for their lives and the lives of black people are accused of treason, sedition, and insurrection? What does Independence Day mean for black Americans who, during the course of four hundred years of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and systemic racism, have struggled to get white Americans to acknowledge and demonstrate that black lives matter?

Can we really celebrate American independence when the complaint lodged in the Declaration of Independence is the same as the complaint of black Americans today: “In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms: our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury”? How can black Americans celebrate American Independence when black Americans have been petitioning for redress for hundreds of years?

Furthermore, what does it mean when the President of the United States celebrates American independence in the shadow of a monument of white supremacy at the very moment the nation is in the midst of a racial reckoning?

Many Native American activists say Mount Rushmore is as reprehensible as the Confederate monuments being toppled around the nation. According to Nick Tilsen, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, “Mount Rushmore is a symbol of white supremacy, of structural racism that’s still alive and well in society today… It’s an injustice to actively steal Indigenous people’s land, then carve the white faces of the colonizers who committed genocide.”
According to the Oglala Sioux president, Julian Bear Runner, “The rocks already had spiritual meaning before westerners came to squat our territory.” Carving the image of U.S. Presidents unto the mountain–especially presidents involved in the genocide of indigenous peoples–defiles that spiritual meaning.

Trump’s selection of Mount Rushmore as a site for a July 4th celebration in the midst of heated debates regarding police violence and the preservation of Confederate monuments promotes unrepentant white supremacy by highlighting and celebrating the fact that American freedom and independence have been built upon stolen land from indigenous people and stolen labor and disposable lives of black people.

While July 4th, 1776 might mark the birth of American independence as an ideal, it does not reflect the birth of American independence as a reality. There is no path to genuine independence for all inhabitants of this land without acknowledging, challenging, and rejecting the white supremacy upon which America has been built and upon which its identity is currently sustained.

As long as notions of American greatness remain rooted in notions of white supremacy, the words of Frederick Douglass with regards to American independence will continue to ring true, Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”

There is no path to American independence for all Americans that does not include the total rejection of all forms and manifestations of white supremacy.


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About the author

Guy Nave

Guy Nave is a professor of religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. His research focuses on the topics of Christianity, religion and social justice, the social construction of religious meaning, and race-religion-and-politics. Professor Nave is currently researching the power, politics, and meaning behind the rhetoric of "change."

He is the author of several articles and book chapters, and he served as a New Testament Greek translator for the 2011 Common English Bible. His commentary on 2 Corinthians is published in the African American New Testament Commentary, and his book, The Role and Function of Repentance in Luke-Acts has been identified as “the standard scholarly work on repentance in the New Testament.”

Guy Nave received his Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. in New Testament studies from Yale University. In addition to his blog posts here, he is a frequent contributor to Sojourners Magazine's online "Commentary" blog series.

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