When juxtaposed against the entirety of human history, 240 years is but a blink of an eye. And while we, as a species, have accomplished more in that time than in the millennia that preceded it, we now stand at a most precarious precipice moving forward. The phrase “we the people” is a call to recognize that all who gather under the banner of these United States must necessarily be afforded a chance for their voice to be heard. We must insist that the framework of governance as the founding fathers intended is neither bestowed upon us by divine providence nor constructed by an infallible age of men. What was an improbable experiment in democracy continues to be shaped by those who dare to believe they have a role to play in it. A role which has expanded exponentially by the efforts of recent generations who were determined to permanently cleanse this land of its great and foul stains. To be a person of worth need not be defined by the color of one’s skin, or how we pray, or how we love; whether we identify as a man, woman, or a gender not defined by convention. Whether we toil in the fields, or behind a desk, or march proudly in service to protect these freedoms we hold dearly, we must always recognize that “we are a nation that is greater than the sum of its parts, that out of many we are truly one.”
Gone now are the days of civil discourse, and while we remain content to blame this breakdown in communication on social media, each other, or maybe even ourselves we must recognize that this vitriol is not a new development. We must acknowledge the festering irony that a country founded on the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness openly allowed onto its shores the shameful trade of slavery. A market dependent on the systematic dehumanization of an entire people was allowed to bake into the very soil that dared to call itself the land of the free. Try as we might, that damned spot has yet to come out. Some may point out that Thomas Jefferson, himself a slave owner, advocated to prohibit the importation of new slaves in the hopes that it would ultimately lead to abolition of the trade. But even after 50 years, half the country would fight the other half in a bloody Civil War before slavery was outlawed almost entirely.
The thirteenth amendment officially ended slavery in this country, but only as it existed as a trade. Slavery is still legally around as criminal punishment. Around this same time, the criminalization of African Americans became a part of the culture. And the active separation between white and black people culminated in Jim Crow Laws, segregation, and the disenfranchisement. It is important to note that for slavery to have existed in the first place, one thing had to have happened: the falsehood that one group of people is not as good as another group of people had to have been perceived as truth. So while the slave trade ended with the Civil War, the culture that actively denied to recognize the humanity of African Americans continued unfettered. History books may show that slavery ended in the United States in 1865, but the voice of black communities would not be heard until the Voting Rights Act a century later in 1965.
But the sentiment of hate continues to this day. As James Baldwin once put it, “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” And we have insisted on romanticizing a revisionist version of history that fails to recognize the worst parts of our past and in doing so have preserved those parts. What is worse is that any attempt to learn from the past is framed as tearing down heritage. Not only does this perspective distill history into nostalgic anecdotes about a romanticized past, but it is a nonstarter that impedes any sort of dialogue. The very people who were forced, for generations, to build this country are denied to claim even a piece of it. Nevertheless, they persisted. And their voices became shouts that demanded their right on this earth to be respected as human beings.
The struggle of African Americans throughout the country’s history serves as a true map to freedom. Unfortunately, the map is far from complete as long as there exists the cries of help that go unheeded. Whether from Flint, Michigan or Standing Rock Reservation or Puerto Rico, these cries for help are but a whisper away from being cries of revolution. We are not meant to be a nation that retreats to excuses, and yet all the perceived wrongs of today are placed squarely on the shoulders of immigrants. The qualifier “undocumented” or “illegal” are consequential. The negative attitude towards immigrants is thinly veiled hate augmented by fear of the other. If one is willing to sacrifice someone else’s freedom to ensure one’s own security, then neither are deserved.
The building of a more perfect union is a continuous endeavor that we must not fool ourselves into thinking is anywhere ever near complete. If anyone becomes hoarse from unheard cries of help, we must not make that an excuse to invalidate their need of help. We can move forward from this moment in history with dialogue; one in which we must be vigilant in not allowing our own cries for help degrade into shouting. Shouting only serves to drown out the other voices, not to make one’s own voice heard. We must learn to hear each other, then to listen. It is only when we can learn to do both that we can attempt our best to curb personal biases and negotiate a more inclusive system. We can do better and must do better in learning how to see human beings as human beings if we expect to ever be free at last.