To the casual observer Independence Day might appear to be a celebration of pyromania. I can think of no other occasion when an obsession with lighting things on fire to blow things up is acceptable, indeed embraced. This year it started in mid-June and still has not come to a conclusion. The night of the official holiday the house shook with one explosion after the next for hours. Miss Sumi cowered in the closet as if seeking the safety of a bomb shelter. At one point I thought about crawling in with her. Take heart, my neighbor consoled. They are not actual bombs. There were no children screaming because their legs were blown off. I have nothing against the responsible use of fireworks. Occasionally we even trod toward the river to see the official display. However, the simulated shelling of the last few weeks has prompted me to wonder what Independence Day is for, and to redefine what it means for myself.
Independence Day is about citizenship. Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees that every living human on this planet has a right to a national identity. My nationality has always been assumed, so until I studied the Universal Declaration it never occurred to me what life might be like without a nationality or how one could end up without one. Wars and internal conflict with real bombs can leave people without a nationality, as can migration and citizenship rules.
Even if one chooses a national identity – as granted by Article 15 – and lives it with every ounce of heart and soul there is no entitlement to nationality or citizenship, regardless of the assurances advanced by the U.N. founding documents in 1948. What does Independence Day mean to the uncounted millions of taxpaying Americans who have raised their children in the U.S., and to those very children who grew up and went to school in the U.S., but because their paperwork is not in proper order their U.S. nationality will never be conferred officially by their own government? With whom is their affinity, culture, and national identity? A place where they may have few or even painful memories? They have no rights to vote and never will. Many pay taxes but do not file with the IRS so never receive the refunds to which the are entitled. Often these Americans are prohibited from, or refuse, partaking in several of the programs their tax payments help to fund. How independent can you be when you work with heroic effort to achieve, and to become a contributing, productive member of society, but live in fear of a job application? The steps to legal U.S. citizenship are nearly insurmountable for Americans who were born in some countries from which the government, de facto (though not by statute), restricts migration. Citizenship is simply not an option for many, no matter how loyal and diligent they are as Americans.
As the national holiday celebrating the creation of U.S. citizenship, Independence Day marks the end of colonial rule by a European government. I would imagine that for some Americans this means the end of rule by one colonial power only to be taken over by another. While the notion of independence may stir great challenges for Americans who are residing in the U.S. with neither a birth certificate nor proof of residency, it is easy to forget the oft-heard adage “we are a nation of immigrants” is not entirely true.
Americans have lived in healthy, independent, self-sufficient, organized communities, with functioning governance structures for tens of thousands of years. The United States, as an independent national political entity, has only existed for a mere 236 years. The start of the revolution celebrated every July 4, was instigated by a group of treasonous British citizens rebelling from their own government and rejecting their own nationality. This scenario was vastly different from the movement Gandhi led to free native Indians from forced subjugation by the British. Had the British rebels in North America been issued birth certificates and passports for the soil they occupied at birth they might have read Mohawk or Oneida or Cherokee. Consequently, my friend from Asia wonders, weren’t the Europeans the illegal immigrants? Little heed was paid to the non-European Americans until it became a matter of convenience or self-interest, and then it was not a mutually beneficial relationship. What does independence mean to Americans whose families were forcibly removed from their ancestral homeland or slaughtered altogether, and who may live on reservations that lack adequate infrastructure or resources to support a community, an economy, and a nation?
Independence Day symbolizes emancipation. Independence is freedom. It is freedom of choice and self-determination. It is pretty clear from the examples of indigenous Americans and immigrant Americans who have never had the opportunity to apply for citizenship that independence is not universal in the U.S. There are countless other instances as well.
But, the U.S. is a nation of dreamers. Millions of immigrants have come willingly in a quest for a better life, with or without permission from the local authorities to stay long term. Millions of slaves who arrived by force also held an image of a better life. Many put their own lives at risk to bring the dream to reality for their progeny. Native Americans who survived ethnic cleansing by the U.S. government live their culture and national identity. Leaders assert their innate power and authority as citizens of sovereign nations. The most frequently recited dream,of course, is that of King, who painted a picture of a world where everyone is respected and accepted for who they are, as whole people without the limitations of stereotypes.
I, too, dream of a time when everyone has freedom of choice and self-determination and equitable access to education and full information to be empowered to make well-informed decisions. As I have previously referred to Professor Cornel West, as long as the struggle remains alive I have hope that freedom will one day be universal. On Independence Day I celebrate the hope. Some days it looks pretty grim and I wonder how long I will be able to maintain hope. As long as I have hope I will tolerate the nightly blasts of mid-summer. The sounds impersonating conflict are a sign that the struggle for equality and independence carries on.