To most people, the Fourth of July means fireworks, barbecues, and American flags. It’s a fun way to celebrate our nation’s birth, but the holiday should mean more than that. It is a time to reflect on the country’s values and beliefs and what they mean in the context of modern society. The country has made a lot of progress since its creation, but it still has a long way to go. The recent groundswell of protests against centuries of police brutality and systemic racism highlight not only how much change has yet to be made but also the patriotism of American society. To be truly patriotic is not just to celebrate our country’s history, but to commit to seeking a better path forward. The first step to that is understanding not only the flaws that have emerged recently but also those which are embedded in the country’s DNA.
The unfortunate reality of the United States is that it owes its very existence to the oppression and labor of Indigenous peoples and enslaved Black people. The Founding Fathers had the wealth and power to declare independence for the rest of the colonists because they relied on the work of enslaved Black people. The colonies gained what meager international status they had because of the mass exportation of goods produced through slave labor. At its very core, the American cause was to control land that had been stolen from Indigenous people. When the United States finally won independence from England, freedom was limited to the few most privileged people—excluding women, Black people, Indigenous people, and anyone who did not own land—while the new government established and maintained systems of oppression.
All of this is not to say that the United States is not worth celebrating or even that the Founding Fathers did not have any good ideas. We’ve just forgotten the ideas and principles that make the country strong and not taken care to make sure that they are applied equitably. The ingenuity of the Founding Fathers and The Constitution lay not in the actual system they established—that was not entirely a new idea—but in the self-awareness reflected through the amendment process, the humility with which they put forth their ideas, and the knowledge that it was impossible to create a system completely free of mistakes and problems. The beauty of their work was that it inspired people to take a chance and build off of the best option they had.
The American spirit is exemplified in activists who recognize the country’s flaws and challenge it to do better rather than blindly singing its praise. This Fourth of July, take a moment to learn more about the history of the United States that was not covered in school, and follow the example of the activists who have allowed the country to progress. You can start by finding out what Indigenous land you live on here, learning about racism with any of these books, or learning about how the US contributes to mass atrocities across the world through the STAND blog. Whatever interests you, think about a way that the US can do better in that area, and then start learning and working. In the midst of a national reckoning with our racism and our dark history, do not be left behind.
Mira Mehta is a student at Westfield High School and a co-lead of the Yemen Action Committee. Prior to this, she was the New Jersey State Advocacy Lead and served on the STAND Communications Task Force for two years.