By R.L. Washington, Team NIA
When they dared to look back and notice what they had become, the growing band of American colonists might have seen themselves as a diverse collection of peoples from different lands, different communities, different cultures and different interests all with one common resolve to live independent and free of fear and limitation. So from their personal perspective of oppression, they focused for a moment, not on musket and domain, but on commonality. In that moment, right there in the same grand State House of Pennsylvania, that continues to this day to hold history stilled in its hands, the drafters of all collective interests declared for the whole of America’s future the unimpeachable freedoms of its people – a diversity of people then beyond their imagination.
While the 4th of July, Independence Day, has become a family day of sorts – a respite from work and other cares – some of us may always have reason to reflect on its deeper meaning. And that’s a good thing nowadays. Especially for too many who may be experiencing despair and defeat like never before. We might find that it continues to affirm survival and hope and promise just as it did for those 56 originators who treaded distance and circumstance to forge it into reality in 1776.
For organizations like the NIA, those affirmations continue to drive the pursuit of full potential and opportunity of all children regardless of the choices or circumstances of their parents. Those affirmations continue to prioritize the pursuit of new ideas in restoring individuals and families victimized by crime as well as those locked in cycles of desperation and criminal activity. Those affirmations make it hard to disassociate “I can’t breathe” from “I can’t vote.” Those affirmations force us to grapple with the hard numbers that paint undeniable pictures of our addiction epidemic, our apparent acceptance of the measured flaws in our education system and the absurdities of profiting on incarceration instead of solving problems that dictate a need for more incarceration.
In this 2020 moment in history, a convergence of long-sustained outcry has erupted into what may feel to some to be a new kind of movement. Others exclaim that the American experience has seen such times before – even with epidemics running concurrent with social and economic struggle. Times wherein some Americans had to revolt against the notion of seeing any man as something less than a man so as to normalize the absence of humanity, dignity and empathy. Times before wherein some Americans had to concede their self-interest to the better angels of conscience and the future of one nation under God always evolving into a more perfect union.
However you may see it, wherever you choose to stand in such moments, they come – and unfortunately, they go. What remains is what we’ve learned or what we allowed ourselves to become as a result of the fleeting experience.
In the movie Amistad, the actor Anthony Hopkins portrays former President John Quincy Adams in a memorable soliloquy reminding the Supreme Court that the freedoms we once fought for remain the relevant freedoms of Americans across the changing of times. That the “natural state of man” was then, has always been and still remains: to be free. And that freedom in its truth, can never be appropriately represented by anyone judging the moment, nor by anyone examining the moment from outside the predicament. But only by the human, him or herself in desperate pursuit of the freedom. And that that human will go to any length to secure and sustain those freedoms, even in war or in revolt or day-to-day acts of desperation and fear of bondage – again.
As some of us struggle to explain any new normals of the moment, we might do well on this day to commit ourselves to a new level of empathy for those who still struggle to be free. We might do well on this day to challenge our political leaders, especially local leaders to stop running from the heavy lift, the up-hill battle and the complicated problem, and face truth squarely as the first bold step toward empowering all of those they represent. Not just at the point of shifting public opinion, but at the point of realization and discovery, and the point of full and fair review. We might do well on this day to set musket and domain aside just long enough to invite every American – friend and foe, neighbor and stranger – back into the hall to participate with voice and vote and our humane and liberated capacity to see and hear others.
Perhaps in all of this lies the true greatness of the day. That we dare to acknowledge that freedom is an evolving state of being. That the beauty of any document declaring it, any day celebrating it, any institution protecting it grows as its people grow – as their inalienable right to it and their demand for it changes and grows.