Telling a Fuller Story of Independence in the United States

June 30, 2023 by The staff of The Upper Room (Nashville, Tennessee)

During this month when those in the United States are celebrating and contemplating the meaning of freedom in their lives, we invite you to reflect on this brief meditation by Valerie Bridgeman Davis based on Frederick Douglass’ famous speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” (July 5, 1852).

What to Us Is the Fourth of July?

The Fourth of July often is met with ambivalence in Africana communities. We are simultaneously glad to be in a country where we can protest injustices, get ahead (sometimes), and work for a better life for all while at the same time ashamed of a history that annihilated and subjugated Native populations and enslaved imported Africans. The story of an immigrant nation where everyone who came did so to experience freedom for religious expression and to start over just is not true. And people of color know that the story of pain and brutality embedded into the soul and soil of the nation must also be acknowledged. We have to tell the “independence” story in its entirety. Like Douglass, we may be convinced that the country can rise to its stated goals, repent of its horrors, and promote the “general welfare” of all its citizens. The Fourth of July gives all people of faith a chance to figure out how to do it, in the name of God.

—Valerie Bridgeman Davis
Adapted from The Africana Worship Book, Year C

Journal Prompts

For deeper reflection, we invite you to listen to five of Douglass’ descendants read and respond to excerpts from his speech. In addition to the below video, you can find the full speech here

Sit with the question, do you feel that the celebration of our national independence is in conflict with past injustices committed against Native populations and enslaved Africans? If so, where is the conflict for you as a person of faith? If not, how would you respond to Frederick Douglass? 

What parts of the "independence" story do you see being left out? How can you help tell the story in its entirety? 

What faith communities have you witnessed or been a part of that work toward the fulfillment of our nation’s stated goals of liberty, justice, and the general welfare of all citizens? 

As a follower of Christ, reflect on your role as a peacemaker. How can you be an agent of love in a nation wounded by deep divisions and injustices? 

Share your responses with others in the comments below.

This reflection appeared in the July edition of The Upper Room Journal, a monthly newsletter to support you in creating daily life with God. Subscribe here.

Photographby Shazli Waquas / Unsplash

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