Independence Day is often seen as a day to commemorate the founding of the country, to reflect on American values and celebrate freedom. But as protests against racial injustices and police brutality continue in Utah and across the country, some are marking the holiday by focusing instead on the progress they hope to see.
A Long Tradition Of Subversion
Writing in the Washington Post, Purdue University history professor Jonathan Lande said that Black Americans have long used the Fourth of July to remind white Americans of their hypocrisy in celebrating freedom and equality.
“By the late 1840s, Black abolitionists had developed genius techniques to lampoon and lament American commitments to freedom amid rampant unfreedoms and inequalities,” Lande wrote. “They understood the day of freedom festivals served as the best moment to challenge Americans, especially white Americans, to reflect on subjects too often ignored: slavery and racism.”
It’s a tradition Tyeise Bellamy hopes to continue. She’s been helping organize and speak in protests against police brutality since they began in Utah on May 30. On July 4, she’ll be attending the Celebrating Black Excellence event in Salt Lake City, which she also helped organize.
She said as a Black woman and mother, she and her son have had many experiences with racism and abuse from police. But she said she’s hopeful that recent events are helping people understand what minority communities around the country face on a daily basis.
“That's the whole goal of this movement,” Bellamy said. “To get people to stop hating us for our skin color long enough to hear our voices and to hear our hearts.”
Ashley Finley, who co-founded the Black Lives Matter Salt Lake chapter, said it’s been nice to see the movement gain momentum. But she said many people still don’t understand how pervasive racism is throughout American society, including the Fourth of July.
“We all were indoctrinated to believe that the holiday was this commemoration for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” she said. “But those things were only afforded to white men at the time. And those white men who wrote the Declaration of Independence still had slaves.”
That’s why she said Juneteenth— not the Fourth of July — is the real independence day for her and other Black Americans. But she hopes people use the holiday this year as an opportunity to think about what they can do to make sure all Americans are treated equally.
She said she’ll be celebrating by taking a day of rest, turning off her phone and reflecting on her heritage.
“I'm going to just kind of sit in reverence of those of my ancestors who watched the people that own them sign this declaration knowing that none of those words were meant for them,” she said.
The Opposite Of Independence
Like Black Americans, some Native Americans have a tense relationship with Independence Day.
Mark Maryboy is a Navajo resident of San Juan County, and he says the Fourth of July is a painful reminder that the United States is built on stolen land.
“Living in America is like living in your own house controlled by somebody else,” he said.
Some Navajo people celebrate their independence on June 1, or Treaty Day, which honors the signing of the Navajo Nation Treaty of 1868. It was signed at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where the Navajo tribe was held hostage by the federal government after being forcibly removed from their homelands between the Four Sacred Mountains in the Four Corners region. It established the Navajo reservation and allowed the tribe to return to their homeland.
But Maryboy does not celebrate Treaty Day, he said, to honor the wishes of his grandmother, who went on the Long Walk to Fort Sumner and returned to the Four Corners after the signing of the treaty.
“When they left, the family agreed to never, ever talk about what happened there,” he said. “Because it was the worst thing you can ever experience as an American Indian on your own land.”
Maryboy was the first Indigenous county commissioner in the state and has served on the Navajo Nation council. Still, he said his allegiance is to Mother Nature, not any form of government.
“Navajo independence occurred when the Earth was created in the beginning, and the deities created that, not men,” he said. “To live according to the laws of Mother Nature, that is independence.”
Jon Reed is a reporter for KUER. Follow him on Twitter @reedathonjon