The principal author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, speaking of the annual celebration of our Independence Day said, “May (this day) be … the signal of arousing men to burst the chains … All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. …For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”
On this 244th Anniversary of America’s Independence, I sit here, summoning all within me to do exactly that — to refresh my recollection of the rights of this nation, the nation that I chose to call my own. This nation that I wasn’t born into. But rather aspired and chose and fought to come to. This nation whose stated values, whose founding principles, I made my own. “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.”
This nation where I hoped to find my equality, my opportunity, my liberty to be me. This nation where I came to be educated. From a life of exile, to a home of my own. From little formal education most of my life, to Harvard. This nation that allowed me to build a dream into a life.
Our Constitution begins with “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity …”
These words. Strong. Poetic. Self-evident. But … I must ask today, We the People, who?
Does We the People include those to whom these lands belonged?
A brief, incomplete timeline:
April 1803 — In the Louisiana Purchase, US acquired 800,000+ square miles of land in the Americas — from France — without the consent of those who lived there, the Adai, Alabama, Apalachee, Muskogee Creek, Avoyel, Bayogoula, and many more tribes.
May 1830 — The Indian Removal Act forced 60,000+ Native Americans off of their lands and walk hundreds of miles — referred to as the Trail of Tears — in which thousands died of starvation and exhaustion.
Summer of 1853 — Hundreds of Tolowa Indians were massacred during a ceremonial dance in northwest California.
December 1862 — Abraham Lincoln ordered the largest mass execution in the US. history following the US-Dakota War.
April 1868 — The Treaty of Fort Laramie established that the tribal lands had been taken illegally by the US government, with the US government owing over $1 Billion by 2008 to The Sioux tribe. The treaty was broken twenty-three years later after gold was discovered on the reservation.
1958–1967 — The Indian Adoption Project forcibly separated 25%-35% of Native American children from their families to be adopted and assimilated by White families.
January 2017 — Two executive orders were signed permitting the construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipeline, a $3.78B project, which threatens water resources and sacred Native American sites of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.
Does We the People include those who toiled this soil and built this nation’s wealth?
A brief, incomplete timeline:
May 1619 — A ship from Angola brought “20 and odd” enslaved Africans to the US, while many African slaves were already brought with the Spanish explorers as essential to the survival of the first pilgrim colonies.
1704 — Slave patrols were formed in South Carolina and spread throughout the colonies to return runaway slaves, enforce discipline, and deter slave revolts through terrorism. These patrols flourished until the end of the civil war and are attributed as the first roots of American police.
1787 — Constitutional Convention — nearly 700,000 slaves lived in the United States, worth an estimated $210 million in today’s dollars.
1861 — Slavery was so profitable, it sprouted more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi River Valley than anywhere in the nation. The South produced 75% of the world’s cotton, with slaves representing Southern planters’ bulk of wealth.
June 1921 — The Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma known as the Black Wall Street representing successful Black-owned businesses was destroyed by white mob, killing 300 black people and displacing 10,000.
August 1955 — Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy, was brutally murdered in Mississippi, for allegedly flirting with a white woman.
Between 1882–1968 — An estimated 3,446 Black Americans were lynched, with true count unknown, as many lynchings remained unrecorded.
Does We the People include those who make up half of us? And whose contributions remain unseen?
A brief, incomplete timeline:
18th Century — Coverture laws — verbatim: “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything … is said to be under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord.”
March 1776 — Referring to Coverture, Abagail Addams wrote to her husband, John Addams, ”Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands.” John’s reply dismissed Abagail’s plea as a joke — he called the letter “saucy.”
1831–1879 — Alice Robinson and Catherine Hall became the first women in the U.S. to earn a college degree. There was no rule preventing women from attending college, but also no formal statement that they could. Less than 1% of the female population went to college in 1870.
November 1872 — Susan B. Anthony is arrested for “unlawful voting.”
April 1873 — In Bradwell v. State of Illinois, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that states have the right to prohibit women from practicing law based on common law which denied married women a legal existence apart from their husbands.
1920 — Only 7.6% of the female population attended college.
1934 — Grace Hopper earned her PhD in Mathematics, continuing on to work in computing and creating the first computer language compiler.
1961 — Katherine Johnson works as a human computer in the Langley Research Center alongside her colleagues, aspiring engineer Mary Jackson and their unofficial acting-supervisor Dorothy Vaughan. These women’s contributions and stories remain largely untold till 2016.
The system, the social contract, that we live in was built layer by layer over centuries. And it seems to be working as it’s intended. It was designed by the select few, for the select few, disregarding the contributions and the rights of the many. So who would, and who could, dismantle the system? Who could rebuild it?
Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, was among the political leaders of his time to speak against slavery, yet when challenged, he chose to safeguard the value of his financial assets (slaves and land), and his political career. Jefferson’s duality is reflected in our culture, as demonstrated in our neighborhoods, schools, and businesses, where we speak of self-evident equality, while turning a blind eye to injustice.
To say, I believe in all lives being equal, that I don’t see color, I believe in diversity and inclusion, I believe in equal opportunity for all, is so right, so obvious, so self-evident that it becomes the end of the discussion. These words give us shields and shade from the scorching, painful truths.
Without acknowledging the skeletons in our history’s closet, how can we truly move forward? If one was physically abused and traumatized as a child, or one abused and bullied others as a child, we don’t expect them to brush it all under the rug, become a changed human and move on with their lives, without ever coming to terms with their past.
And so it is with our nation — covering up centuries of inequities with tales of heroic victories perpetuates the injustice and abuses of power in our communities today, while we never come to terms with our past. We shrug racial inequities under the rug of criminal justice. We shield toxic masculinity with our strong words supporting gender equality. We hide indigenous massacres behind the celebration of Thanksgiving. We build Mount Rushmore over sacred stolen lands. Only with the courage to tell the truth about our old stories can we arrive at the new stories that can guide us.
Our history is not our future. Our history is not what defines us, but rather what informs us. Our history is not our choice. Our future is.
Can we, the more powerful, more advantaged, who’ve found our way to have a voice, to write a Medium or a LinkedIn article, to raise money, to build companies, to go to places like Harvard or Howard, McKinsey or Microsoft, with friends with power, can we dismantle parts of our system?
Can we start where we are? Use what we have? Do what we can?
Let’s dismantle and rebuild our companies. Let’s re-write and re-publish our history. Teach our children the truth, the whole truth. Build new public monuments of art — that tell the untold stories. Direct our advertising budgets to shine light on the truth. Invest in our communities with a portion of our profits.
Can we build a future better than the past we inherited? A future that lives up to our powerful, self-evident founding values.
Can We the People build this nation for All the People?
(Written by VIDA Founder/CEO, Umaimah Mendhro in collaboration with Lacie Levy)