Participants march during the National Independence Day Parade in Washington, DC, on July 4, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

If you’re a nation celebrating your 247th birthday, as America — a country whose national character was shaped less by historical longevity and more by ideational fiat — did on July 4, you’re the new kind on the block, compared to others whose lineage goes back millennia.

So, you ask, how’s the kid doing?

In 1964, while on their first tour in the US, the Beatles were asked by a reporter, “How do you find America?” and Ringo Star, the group’s drummer, responded, with a cheeky smile and mischief written over his face, “Turn left on Greenland”

Well, truth be told, ever since the day on July 4, 1777, when Americans spontaneously poured into the streets of Philadelphia — a city that resonates in the historical consciousness of the nation, being the birthplace of democracy (“The greatest political experiment ever tried”), where the Constitution was written and the Liberty Bell was located — to celebrate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Second Congress on that day exactly a year earlier, many questions have been asked about where to “find” America.

An Independence Day fireworks display at the White House in Washington, D.C., on July 4, 2022. Image Credit: Washington Post

Celebration and reflection

Some Americans use the day simply to celebrate, others to reflect and others still to, well, mourn.

To those of us who are too apathetic to evince the slightest bit of interest in political or social issues, thus becoming by definition complicit in that which leaves us indifferent, the 4th of July holiday (or just “The Fourth” in common parlance), is simply a day off work, a day of cookouts, hot dogs and a few cold ones guzzled down with friends while watching the fireworks — a display of pyrotechnics that, incidentally, results in roughly 10,000 trips to emergency rooms each year.

Then there are those of us, one and all the product of the hyperactive 60s — a time when America was judged anew by the New Left, the New Journalism, the New Rock and by a host of other new, socially conscious movements knocking around then — who, propelled by the civil rights struggle, wrote a revised narrative of America’s history, essentially how America had in fact failed to fulfil the ideals of its Founding Fathers, ideals which had it that all men were created equal, endowed by their Creator to pursue happiness.

In short, we argued, enjoying independence should by definition mean that it is our duty to empower others, who are denied independence, to gain theirs. And if African Americans and Native Americans are also, like everyone else, “men”, why are they not equal?

And then there was Fredrick Douglas (d. 1895), the blunt, fearless, tell-it-like-it-is abolitionist, social reformer and one of the country’s most powerful orators, who, on July 4, 1852, wearing his signature high- collar, three-piece suit and his salt-and-pepper Afro, exuding the kind of Black anger that would’ve put Malcolm X to shame, gave his famous “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech, delivered to a mostly White audience in Rochester, New York.

Fourth of July

“What to the slave is the Fourth of July? I answer: A day that reveals to him, more than other days of the year, the gross injustice to which he is the constant victim..... Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us”

That distance, as most African Americns will concur, has narrowed little since then.

In effect, the American Republic, its Declaration of Independence notwithstanding, was built on the violation of the rights, not only of enslaved African Americans — whose descendants continue to this day to be victims of White supremacy, which has deep roots in American history — but the rights of Native Americans as well, whom White Americans had relentlessly fought till there was no more of them to fight and no more of their land to expropriate.

Look, the deadliest episode of domestic violence in the United States was not committed by a disturbed, lone gunman but by the US Army.

On Dec. 29, 1890, at the tale end of the Indian Wars (as the genocidal war to conquer, forcibly relocate and then incinerate the indigenous population in reservations was known), the US 7th Cavalry Regiment opened fire on a largely unarmed crowd of men, women and children from the Lakota Nation, at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota, killing just over 300 people.

When an unspeakable happening like that insinuates itself into the collective consciousness of a people, subsequent generations will feel it gnawing at them like a raw wound.

That is why, on Feb. 27, 1973, in what became known as the Second Wounded Knee, approximately 200 Lakota, along with followers of the American Indian movement, seized and occupied the town of Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and controlled it for 71 days, on the very site where the 1890 massacre had taken place.

The event gained much media attention and sympathy for the occupiers’ goal, that is, to highlight long-standing issues related to Native peoples’ grievances. (James Abourezk, the first Arab American to serve in the Senate, who represented South Dakota, was at the time greatly supportive of the Wounded Knee occupation.)

Celebrating or merely reflecting on liberty on the 4th of July each year, while there remain, to this day, many of your fellow-Americans still demanding it, is difficult for those of us who mourn injustice.

— Fawaz Turki is a noted academic, journalist and author based in the US. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.