I celebrated this Independence Day watching the film of Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical, In the Heights—an infectious and joyful love letter to Washington Heights, Nueva York, and the U.S.A. conceived of as a multicultural nation built of waves of immigrants bringing not just dreams and determination but rich culture (music, food, language, customs).

In the Heights is upbeat and engaging, but, of course, the conflicts and prejudices that await immigrants are present in back-breaking jobs, discrimination on rental applications, an isolating and condescending experience at an elite college, and immigration status blocking another from attending college. Most powerfully, the neighborhood Abuela (Olga Merediz from the Broadway production) sums up her life in her dying moments with a remarkable cultural montage, Paciencia y fe (Patience and Faith).

It’s a richly evocative piece of writing and filmmaking about immigrant struggles and triumphs, and I couldn’t help but think of the similar sacrifices and aspirations my grandparents brought to New York City from Slovakia and Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century. What better way to ponder the diverse richness of the American experience on July Fourth?

Well, that has become very much a national question: how do we understand American history inscribed in the enlightenment terms of freedom and democracy yet founded upon slavery and genocide? When we decry violence and prejudice against immigrants by saying “That’s not who we are,” we make an error. It’s not who we aspire to be as a nation, but prejudice against immigrants has indeed been exactly who we are with wave after wave of migration met with prejudice and brutality, whether aimed at Irish, Italian, Asian, South Asian, Eastern European, or Central American immigrants. 

And those tides of immigration and hatefulness only follow our brutal origin story, which depends upon the decimation of indigenous peoples and the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade with literally millions of deaths in passage and over two centuries of human bondage. Historical essays like “The 1619 Project” present American History by making sure that the racism of its founding is centered, so that the continuation of the expression of white supremacy through slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, voter suppression, unequal education, redlining, unequal justice, and mass incarceration is understood as an essential part of this complex American story.

Those historical projects, which are hardly new, have generated a severe backlash in our current heavily politicized environment to the extent that multiple states are passing laws restricting what can be taught and discussed about race in schools and universities (five states have already signed such bills into law). Anyone who cares about education should be alarmed when legislators take on the curriculum by banning points of view and areas of discussion. As the battles fought over the teaching of evolution have taught us, banning the dissemination of knowledge is antithetical to freedom and knowledge itself.

Teaching one’s nation’s history (especially to schoolchildren) has always involved a tension between instilling national pride and teaching the complexities of conquest, nation-building, and the reality that any history is driven by flawed people struggling for power. But the current politicization of American History is ultimately a backlash to Black Lives Matter and the consciousness the movement has raised about rethinking racism as systemic and often unconscious rather than primarily the words and actions of aberrant and extremist white supremacists.

In history classes that means being honest about the contradictions of American Freedom and not pretending that racial inequity is wholly a thing of the past. Those initial contradictions are at the heart of enlightenment thinking, which was truly revolutionary in envisioning governmental power flowing from the people by their consent, but also formulated at a time when women and non-Euro-Americans were considered unworthy of those newly conceived human rights. This contradiction should not be a matter of casting historical figures as heroes or villains but of understanding the paradox of Western democracies in which millions had to struggle for freedom in nations dedicated to freedom from oppression.

Professor Eddie Glaude, Jr., of Princeton University, described the backlash to “a moment when we were on the precipice of imagining ourselves differently” following the “racial reckoning” of last summer: “Every single time a new America is about to be born, the umbilical cord of white supremacy has been wrapped around that baby’s neck, choking the life out of it. We have to be better midwives to give birth to a better America.” And that, he added, requires honesty about our history, an honesty that, in my view, is not at odds with patriotism or American greatness but in alignment with our best values.

Frederick Douglass, who endured slavery and worked tirelessly for freedom, described the American ideal he imagined woven into the flawed fabric of our nation: “In whatever else other nations may have been great and grand, our greatness and grandeur will be found in the faithful application of the principle of perfect civil equality to the people of all races and of all creeds, and to men of no creeds. We are not only bound to this position by our organic structure and by our revolutionary antecedents, but by the genius of our people. Gathered here, from all quarters of the globe by a common aspiration for rational liberty as against caste, divine right Governments and privileged classes, it would be unwise to be found fighting against ourselves and among ourselves; it would be madness to set up any one race above another, or one religion above another, or proscribe any on account of race color or creed.” https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/speeches-african-american-history/1869-frederick-douglass-describes-composite-nation/ 

As Nikole Hannah-Jones has put it: “No one cherishes freedom more than those who have not had it.” July 4, 2021 invites us to rededicate ourselves to American freedoms through open-minded honesty about the complexities of our history and the challenges and potential of our present moment. Colleges and universities play a crucial role in that effort and should not be silenced or hamstrung by short-sighted politicians.

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