Today, we celebrate the official 244th birthday of the United States of America. As a Black woman, I’ve been deeply affected by the trifecta of COVID, economic fallout, and racial unrest that my country has borne during the first half of the year 2020. My country came about due to a desire to divorce and to separate from practices abhorrent to a number of people. Yes, the folks making those decisions were white and male. The reasoning behind those decisions, however, still resonates today.
The United States of America is an experiment in a type of democracy that should be impossible. Despite our rather young age of 244 years, our nation continues to wrestle with those foundational principles of liberty, independence, and freedom that provided fuel for the initial divorce from England. We still want our voices to be heard and to matter if we have to pay taxes.
Most of us know this line from the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Like many, I grew up believing, in spite of historical evidence to the contrary, that these words were both real and an aspiration for our nation. As a Black woman, I need only count back five generations to run smack dab into slavery as a norm. My great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents lived with the post-Reconstruction solution, balm for many who were too bruised by the implications and reality of a post-slavery world to accept those who had not been considered fully human at the time of the Declaration. They lived under variations of Jim Crow laws, which lasted from the end of Reconstruction until they technically ended on August 6, 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
I say “technically,” because prejudice in the form of racism against any group considered outside the official white majority at any one time has been a norm in these United States of America. Exactly who is classified as “white” in this country has varied depending on when a particular group arrived and was thereafter assimilated into a type of acceptance. For those with Finnish ancestors in northern Minnesota, the early 1900s were difficult, as some were anti-Finn. Germans were not always viewed kindly or “white,” even by anti-slavery Benjamin Franklin.
While this quickly passed and now most current Americans consider those with German ancestry white, it is clear that the United States historically remained fickle in terms of who belonged to the acceptable majority and who did not. Anti-Irish sentiment ruled in the 19th century, with “No Irish Need Apply” signs common in the mid-19th century. At times, they were considered inferior due to their Celtic background, as opposed to the American preference for Anglo-Saxon origins. Now, most Irish are considered fully assimilated white.
Anti-Italian sentiment took a slightly different path, depending on location. When I lived in the Columbus, Ohio suburb of Grandview Heights, there was a section of the city with a very weird line shape. My landlord, an older white man, explained to me that at an earlier point, the city lines had been reshaped to keep Italians out. This explained why most of the last block of Oakland Avenue belonged in the city of Grandview Heights, while the remaining eight of the block technically belonged to the City of Columbus. On a map, this appears no different than the political practice of gerrymandering or the continued legalized practice of redlining with mortgages and social services.
Such practices reinforce the following reality: the declared majority decides who can live where, and thus, who can benefit from the freedoms entrusted to all in the United States of America. For people of color, this has been reality since the our country’s inception. For indigenous people, it has been an unwelcome history from that included forced assimilation.
While most remember “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” from the Declaration of Independence, how many remember how the full sentence continues:
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
The key words here are “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” It is why we hold elections on a regular basis and challenge our leaders, local and national to maintain a higher standard. It is why we choose debates as to what these leaders will bring to the table in helping to govern this nation. We, the people, form the “consent of the governed,” which is why both voting participation and activism are critical.
Activism is at the heart of the Declaration of Independence; it remains the lifeblood of what it means to be an member of the United States of America. We are a family of fifty siblings plus those who live within the District of Columbia. At times, we get along with the “agree to disagree” mantra. At times, we have so disagreed that we have taken it to war. We internally separated only to re-form as one union.
Right now, our country feels more wounded and fractured than unified. I am tired and weary of hearing the battles in the news. Like many, I see how it is hard to fight a virus, an invisible enemy. I see how many of my siblings are unemployed or underemployed due to remnants of the larger battle against the same virus. Finally, there is the eruption that may seem foreign to some, but long past due for others, in the form of social unrest burst with the murder of George Floyd and worldwide protests for the past month.
While outright war has unified our beloved country, this trifecta of virus, economic depression, and social unrest threatens to render tenuous healing into fissures requiring decades of delicate care. Our skin is not normally so thin, but just as skin is the largest organ in the human body, our nation’s unified skin can only take so much pain without suffering permanent damage.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been surprised by the uproar over mask wearing. For a country based on freedoms, the ability to live to enjoy these freedoms is first and foremost in my mind. Masks provide protection however minimal from the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
I wear a mask because wearing one makes sense to me. As a person who follows science, wearing a mask, even if it has a minuscule amount of protection against a virus, is better than having no protection or relying on my immune system. Like most humans, I’ve done some stupid things to my body when I was younger and thought I was impervious to pain, disease, or any illness. Knowing that, I don’t want to test my luck now. I have seen people get sick. I don’t want to see others, including myself, die. I can’t wait for a vaccine or even better, a cure.
In the meantime, I look to see how other countries are coping. Elsewhere, masks are not optional. Death rates are lower. Case rates are lower for COVID-19. In Germany, mandatory mask requirements began in late April. Mask wearing is a matter of social etiquette, politeness, and a requirement in various parts of Asia.
The United States of America likes to be considered first and best in everything. Our competitive spirit, ingenuity, and think-outside-the-box mentality shapes what we do and how we think as a country and as individuals. It should be no surprise then that this independent streak has led to masks being considered a choice that expresses so-called political beliefs. President Trump presided over an Independence Day celebration at Mt. Rushmore in the state of South Dakota where few wore masks, and the governor delivered on her promise that no social distancing would be practiced. And now the United States have been rewarded with the glory of another category where we are number one: we are the nation with the highest number of daily cases of COVID-19 and the most deaths on the planet.
Simply type in “US Covid numbers” into Google and a graph pops up with the current rate. We have 2.8 million cases, over 131,000 deaths, and daily new cases over 57,000 and counting. Our nation is fiercely independent – we are also drowning in COVID-19.
At this time during the pandemic, I have been avoiding contagion wars with political solidarity. When I view Facebook, I see posts from those who truly think the virus is a hoax, and that to wear a mask anywhere infringes upon personal and constitutional rights. The popular warehouse chain, Costco, instituted a policy requiring masks as a means to protect customers and workers. While the policy does have a few exceptions for medical reasons, the goal was to bring shoppers back to an essential service. From a business perspective, it is sound to make the customer as comfortable as possible during a viral pandemic by instituting policies that will reduce the likelihood of contracting said virus.
For some, the idea that a company could choose to require masks became a clear infringement on freedom and constitutional rights. Some chose to enter Costco without masks to test the policy. Tweets, posts, and videos abound as a result. The lines are drawn. While I am sure that Costco has lost some customers, it also has gained respect for its stance on considering the many, rather than the few.
Recently, I read an article about a Palm Beach County, Florida County Commission meeting, where a woman named Beth states her case for not wearing a mask: “I don’t wear a mask for the same reason I don’t wear underwear. Things got to breathe.” Another woman asserts that masks kill people. I watch and wonder where these people will be if someone they know gets the virus. I am glad that the Palm Beach County Commission passed the facial coverings mandate because even if they hate it, I would rather have complaining Americans who are alive than those who are ill or dying from a virus.
On this 244th birthday of the United States, the most important quality is interdependence. As a term, interdependence describes the relationships we form with one another. Two people decide to join lives in a way that is meaningful for them. Whether they choose marriage as a legal formality or simply live together, the biggest challenges often come from having to give up some part of just doing things “my” way to having a compromise to doing things “our” way.
As a nation, the best examples of interdependence include how we interact with our global partners, other nations on the planet. We are not an island, and this means we have to get along with other countries. We structure agreements that are of mutual benefit for all parties involved. Organizations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, the United Nations or UN, the Group of Seven or G7 are examples that have brought prosperity to all involved while maintaining a sense of balance among member nations.
On July 4, we celebrate the act of independence, the steps taken to smash out of the restrictions of colonization. This act of birth, while important, is just the first step in our growth as a nation. The United States of America has a history of taking time to accept and to assimilate those considered “other.” This is why acts of social unrest and a public cry to embrace anti-racism resound more than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and more than a century since immigrant groups experienced discrimination due to their culture of origin. It is why there was an uproar over President Trump’s decision to hold a rally on Juneteenth at a location less than a mile from where the largest race massacre in the United States occurred in 1921, Black Wall Street.
On this day, let’s celebrate the interdependence of the fierce, proud Americans who come together during crises and sporting events. We support each other, we cheer on each other, and like many siblings, we defend each other from outside forces that would destroy us. The trifecta of COVID-19, economic depression, and social unrest threatens more than just the everyday life of all Americans. It compromises our sanity, the core internal belief that guides our country.
Right now, things are hard. Things are brutal. There is no one way out except to go through this experience as a nation. Times are raw, and sometimes acceptance of mask wearing is required. In reality, we are dependent on one another.
I live in the United States of America. We are one from many: E Pluribus Unum.