Americans celebrate the birth of their nation every year on July 4. It was on this day in the year 1776 that Americans ratified Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and renewed their commitment to the revolutionary struggle against Great Britain.
They would go on to overcome the tyranny of imperial power, unite the political energies of a nascent state, and establish a nation that has grown to become—in the words of Joseph J. Ellis—“the oldest enduring republic in world history.”
The men and women of that generation were rightly called revolutionaries. They revolted in 1775 and went on to enshrine principles in foundational texts that have withstood the test of time- because of their efforts, we not only celebrate the birth of a nation on July 4, but also the values of equality, freedom, and democracy that our predecessors fought for.
It is also customary—as we come together to celebrate the birth of our country and the values it was founded on—to reflect on some of the achievements of the American people.
We recall how they were successful in their revolution against tyranny and how they managed to preserve our nation after a brutal civil war. Americans defeated the Axis powers in World War II and outlasted the Soviet Union in the Cold War. They upheld a country that continues to be—according to a recent Gallup poll—the most “desired destination for potential migrants,” and have helped sustain a country whose standard of living is marveled at by much of the world.
Yet despite these successes, the American story I know has always been more complex. My country’s story has included the massacre and expulsion of Native Americans, the torture and enslavement of black people, and the persecution of other minority groups.
It is my country that holds the dismal honor of being the only one to have incinerated hundreds of thousands of people with not one, but two atomic bombs. It is my country that has somehow managed to kill innocent people all over the globe, my country that has sent our youngest to die in needless wars, my country that has supported death squads, dictatorships, and some of the biggest enemies of human rights and democracy. It is my country that has punished other nations with debt distress and structural adjustment programs, and my country that has surrendered to the greedy and powerful among us.
And sadly, much of what has happened still occurs today.
It simply hurts to think of what some of our ancestors have done, and what others among us continue to do. But as it happens, I am reminded once again of those who have excelled: those visionaries, scholars, inventors, activists, and soldiers who have personified true American values and brought honor to our country.
They console me and remind me that Americans have done great things.
They remind me that America was and still is, as Hamza Yusuf once said, “a country of great contradiction,” where on the one hand there is much to celebrate, while on the other hand there is not much to celebrate at all.