It’s July 4, and wherever you are in the country right now, you’re probably not too far from a burst of fireworks, a parade replete with waving flags and confetti, or a solemn recitation of the pledge of allegiance. You’re also probably not far from the home of someone who is deprived of that sense of belonging, cut off from the privileges of citizenship that others take for granted, and perhaps even reluctant to show themselves in public, for fear of being rounded up and expelled from the country. In the face of the enormous injustices facing so many who are Americans in all but legal status, the trappings of our 4th of July celebrations may be difficult to appreciate: the commercialized displays of blatant nationalism, the valorization of our wars abroad and unbridled drive for capitalist prosperity at home. You might wonder why people whose very presence in this country has been criminalized and shamed would feel a sense of cultural allegiance and even national solidarity, particularly when they’re barraged with jingoistic vitriol from “fellow Americans” hell-bent on making them feel as unwelcome as possible. Why would people embrace a country that paints them as “aliens” or dismisses their very being as unlawful?
But again and again, youth who have rallied in support of the DREAM Act and immigration reform voice their desire to be full citizens, to finally be affirmed as true Americans. Which America are we talking about, here?
The fact is that America, and Americans, have always wrestled with the idea of nationhood. Despite our vaunted republican virtue, the national myth that exists in the public imagination has always been at odds with the managed chaos of this fractious society. The “American identity” that history books and the media present to us has always uneasily straddled the notion of ruthless individualism and national pride. And often the mixture of those forces explodes in the most vile forms of racism, economic exploitation and violence. And maybe one of the most complex paradoxes of American identity is the concept of a nation of immigrants, a country of transplants and polyglot creoles.
The political battles over immigration are just the latest episode in this long-running drama in American history. Generations ago, when the country was steeped in a crisis over its most abominable institution, Frederick Douglass, a formerly enslaved black man who had become one of the most eloquent voices for racial justice in the country, lay bare the utter hypocrisy embedded in the American brand of “freedom” in his speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth July?” His words (reprinted at The Nation) are a useful guidepost for activists today, gracefully intruding on the country’s jubilation and upsetting a patriotic myth:
Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July!
He goes on to criticize not only the institution of slavery but all of the other elements of society that buttress it, from the businesses that profit from the slave market to the church that turns a blind eye to the scourge perpetrated by its followers. But he ends with a hopeful exhortation, and he seems to anticipate that change will come when the artificial boundaries of nationalism and race dissolve in the light of a common moral truth:
No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. … The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.
We might look back on Douglass’s words as both visionary and naive. Though chattel slavery was abolished within a generation of Douglass’s speech, new abuses and outrages continue to fester today, across the country and around the globe. But if the internal contradictions he described are not yet resolved (and may never be), at least one aspect of his vision is coming to fruition–a generation of people who live across borders, who are now struggling to make themselves visible in the “pervading light.”
The photographs in the news of DREAM Act advocates draped in American flag regalia aren’t just a reflection of a desire to “assimilate” or to abandon an immigrant heritage. Nor do the graduation robes of the DREAM Act scholars necessarily represent pure pride in a woefully inequitable education system. But those symbols inscribe a more inclusive definition of “American.” And, in the tradition of dissenting Americans like Douglass, they speak to the emerging power of the country’s disenfranchised communities to define their sense of citizenship for themselves.