“This time feels different” might be the most repeated phase in America at this moment, and that’s because it’s true. This time does feel different.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean this time is different. In order for what we’re currently experiencing to be different, it will have to be the beginning of a movement and not just a moment. What transforms a moment in history into a historical movement is an accurate historical understanding by actors in the moment of the history that produced the moment.
The 4th of July is a uniquely appropriate time to have a discussion about what’s produced this moment in American history.
What has been euphemistically called “the American Project” has its foundation in two crimes against humanity, whose epic scale and duration have not been seen before or since in human history: the chattel enslavement of Africans and their descendants and the genocide of the Native people.
Out of necessity we (the descendants of the African Diaspora in the United States) have focused on our sufferings, particularly this year. At this moment everyone is wishing each other Happy Fredrick Douglas Day and reading “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” But at this time and in this moment, it’s important that Black people pause to recognize and remember the Native people, not as a matter of empathy for the suffering of other human beings, but as an act of solidarity. The source of their oppression is the same ours.
Everyone is familiar with Jefferson’s declaration “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” but those words are not the historical reason for the importance of the Declaration of Independence. “A decent respect for the opinion of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which compel them to the separation” is this statement in the opening paragraph the makes the Declaration of Independence a proschemata, an ancient Greek term that means a publicly stated rationale for war and was required protocol in the 18th century.
The Declaration of Independence lists 27 specific grievances against King George III, but it’s the 27th that should be the focus of our attention. Because it’s the 27th that will join the fate of enslaved Black people with the fate of Native people. It reads: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.”
What did it mean? It meant that the British Crown was not as aggressive in suppressing rebellions of enslaved Black people as America’s colonial plantation class desired and they would not support the geographic expansionists’ ambitions of that planter class by engaging in armed conflict with Native people in order purloin their land. There were 26 other reasons for the colonial rebellion but the American Revolution was as much about the expansion of slavery and the necessary genocide it required as taxation without representation.
If you want to understand why Derek Chauvin felt empowered to kneel on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds and Donald Trump felt entitled to defile the sacred lands of the Lakota people with his clownish, but dark, performance at his cartoonish July 4th rally, know that there is a through-line between their behavior and Thomas Jefferson’s quill.
In order to turn this moment into a movement, young activists of every ethnicity need to understand the symbiotic relationship between systems and culture. Systems will produce or change culture over time, and cultures produce the systems that support and maintain them. Real and sustainable change requires new systems and cultural transformation – it’s not either/or, it’s both. In order to do that you need to understand that this moment does not exist by happenstance or accident. It is the historical consequence of conscious decisions made by people with power to advance and maintain their interests. You may not have fully known or understood what Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, but trust that he did.
The removal of Confederate statues and the renaming of military bases is an instinctively correct necessary first step, but it’s insufficient to what’s required. We need a complete rewriting of the American historical narrative to one that tells the whole truth and nothing but the truth – the good, the bad and the ugly. Then, every generation will be a position to make their own moral judgments about their historical inheritance.