Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness? Maybe Not So Much

Today is July 4th — “Independence Day.” All over the internet, people are posting about freedom and liberty. The U.S. is, after all, the country of liberty for all, right? Or at least, that’s what some people like to say. Kai Wright, on the other hand, recently wrote a post for Colorlines called “How To Celebrate the Fourth of July: Read Frederick Douglass.” His post comments on the U.S.’s history of oppression and reminds that there should be more to the Fourth of July than blind patriotism.

Wright quotes Frederick Douglass’s 1852 Independence Day address:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.

Wright continues, “Douglass explains that America’s language of liberty in fact describes what a just nation ought to look like. . . . Problem was, those ideas had not made it into practice, and all the festive celebration of liberty as a matter of history was being used to obscure enslavement of the present. The point remains relevant today.”

When I see and hear people proudly quote the “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” part of the Declaration of Independence, part of me can’t help but cringe. I believe that everyone should have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — but that is not the case in the United States.

The existence of the death penalty makes a mockery of people’s right to life. Mass incarceration (and the prison industrial complex as a whole) is a stark example of the reality that not everyone has a right to liberty (if you can’t afford to post bail, if you can’t afford an excellent attorney, if you aren’t influential or wealthy enough to merit special treatment, if you’re a member of a group that has already been defined as criminal, even if you personally have never broken a law). And the disparity in opportunities in this country — based on race, based on class, based on so many forms of oppression and privilege — shows that one’s right to pursue happiness is ofttimes shaky at best.

The United States was founded on a number of principles in which I believe. Those principles, however, have not always been put into practice. And for me, pride in the  United States’ dedication to everyone’s rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” rings hollow. Let’s only say that when we can mean it.

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