What Does Being American Mean To You Right Now?

The question Frederick Douglass asked 166 years ago could not be more meaningful today.

J.W. Hurn/Library of Congress

On July 5, 1852, before the Ladies’ Anti-Slave Society in Rochester, New York, Frederick Douglass (who, by the way, did “great work,” as President Donald Trump blundered in 2017) delivered a piercing 2,500-word speech on the perverse irony of celebrating America’s independence as a black man who had been born into bondage. 

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” he asked, before offering a brutal 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.” 

One hundred and sixty six years later, those words still ring true. Slavery is over, but the foundation of exploitation that it encoded into America’s DNA is still bearing bitter fruit. In 2018, it’s easy to feel like the United States seems to be civically unraveling, one legislative thread at a time. In recent weeks, the government has found new ways to prolong family separation at the US border with Mexico, while the Supreme Court has made it harder for workers to unionize and easier to ban people from Muslim majority countries from entering the country. And with the impending retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy and a new Trump appointee to the Court, we could see the end of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized a woman’s right to choose abortion. 

But if history is any guide, America is a draft that’s always under revision.

What—and who—gets edited out, and who gets to do the editing in the first place, is what power is really about, after all. And as David Beard writes in our weekly roundup of good news, Recharge, those battles are playing out in big and small ways in places all over the country. Volunteers are going to the border to help migrant families, students are speaking out at graduations, and residents are working together to make their communities brighter.

This Independence Day, we want to hear about how you’re helping to shape America’s story. What does being American mean to you right now? And what are you doing to either reinforce or change that definition?