It was my son’s fifth birthday. We were having a party at the neighborhood pool with some of his friends. We asked my daughter, his older sister, to help organize some games for the kids to play in between swimming and cupcakes. The error became immediately obvious as sister seized the opportunity of her newfound and unearned authority to pick winners and losers and immediately toss the birthday boy into the latter bucket.
“Happy sad birthday to me!” my son cried.
Throughout our 245 years as a republic, America has had her share of sad birthdays. Slavery, eradication of indigenous peoples, poverty, oppression and exploitation are more than just stains on the historical fabric of our nation. They are integral plot lines in the story of America. We don’t like to think about them, let alone talk about them, while we eat hot dogs and potato salad off of red, white and blue paper plates. To the extent we discuss history at all on our Independence Day, we talk in platitudes about freedom and how lucky we are to live in the world’s greatest democracy.
I think this July 4 will be different. We are observing America’s birthday as we emerge from a pandemic that claimed 600,000 American souls and shuttered our lives for 16 months. We are still reckoning with systemic racism and police brutality. And then there is the failed insurrection of Jan. 6, when former President Trump and his allies incited his followers to storm the Capitol and attempt to stop the certification of the electoral college vote that ushered his calamitous presidency to an ignominious end.
Though Trump is gone from the White House, the bitter division he has sown persists. His followers remain willing to jettison the very bulwarks of democracy in their adoration of the despotic, racist megalomaniac. Those of us who don’t drink the Trump Kool-Aid look at our fellow Americans who do and wonder how it is we came to share the same planet, let alone the same country.
It is eminently reasonable that on this Independence Day, many of us will ponder, maybe even out loud, what being an American really means in today’s world. Are we a nation of ideals, constantly striving for freedom, justice and prosperity? Or are we really just a morass of divergent viewpoints, sharing a geography, whose only unifying principal is utter disdain for those with whom we disagree? Are we so divided that to even call us a nation is to stretch that term beyond any recognizable definition?
“Happy sad birthday to me!” America cries.
It is uncomfortable to remember that even the most revered men in American history wielded the power of government and privilege to oppress and terrorize. Any careful examination of their lives reveals a study in contradiction, a tension between ideals of American liberty inextricably tied to the atrocities that laid the economic foundation of our nation. They owned slaves, they oppressed women, they murdered and displaced Native Americans.
Likewise, Colorado’s history is littered with examples of the privileged class oppressing immigrants, racial minorities, women and indigenous people. Col. John Chivington massacred over 100 women and children in an unprovoked attack on a Cheyenne-Arapaho settlement at Sand Creek in 1864. The Ku Klux Klan effectively ran Colorado’s state government in the 1920s and one of its members was Denver mayor Ben Stapleton. In 1992, voters approved Amendment 2, a measure to strip gays, lesbians and bisexuals of legal protections against discrimination. Thankfully, Amendment 2 was struck down by the United States Supreme Court.
So yes, Americans (and Coloradans) have perpetrated injustices that are impossible to square with our supposed fealty to freedom. But Americans also have taken to the courts, the ballot box and the streets to change the course of our national story, to bend the arc toward justice.
It is these stories, the stories of aspiration, dedication and progress (even at great cost) that we should celebrate on Independence Day:
The story of Henry O. Wagoner, the progenitor of Five Points, who helped operate the Underground Railroad before coming to Denver and fighting for voting rights and education for Colorado’s Black community.
The story of Caroline Nichols Churchill, Colorado’s chief suffragist, who used her pen and her humor to help secure the vote for Colorado’s women and to fight for the rights of immigrants and minorities.
The story of Ralph Carr, Colorado’s water-lawyer-turned-governor who used his bully pulpit to condemn the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II.
The story of Corky Gonzales, the boxer and poet who founded The Crusade for Justice and was a pioneer in advocacy for the rights of Colorado’s Latinos.
Each of these Colorado heroes faced the injustices of our imperfect union. Each took immense risks to make positive change. And each contributed to the American story that we can all be proud of.
Of course, our country is not perfect. Many can credibly argue that America is no longer even exceptional among the community of nations. We tolerate violence, oppression and inequality. We exploit workers, pollute the planet and contribute to the accelerating crisis of climate change.
But we Americans strive and aspire to be better, to realize the ideals of liberty, justice and equal protection of the law. And we make progress.
And that is something that can unify us, something to celebrate, something to guide our course in these tumultuous times.
Happy sad birthday, America!
Dan Grossman is the Environmental Defense Fund’s senior director of state advocacy for EDF’s Energy Program and a former Colorado state senator from Denver.