We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness.
As an American I have always felt such pride on the words of the United States Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Our founding documents were supposed to set us apart, make us so different and superior to any nation that came before us. Even as I typed the quote above, I was moved by the power of the message. But my pride in my nation’s founding documents is greatly tempered by the knowledge that the Founding Fathers never expected the human rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the rights granted in the Constitution to be applied to me.
I have finally had to face the cause of the continued backlash against equality and civil rights in my country: it wasn’t supposed to be my country to begin with. My ancestors were brought here only to serve as chattel slaves, to be a source of labor. Once they ceased to exist as a source of free labor, the nation had no use for them anymore. Unable to send us all back to Africa-an idea that even the ‘Great Emancipator’ President Abraham Lincoln supported-the USA tolerated our presence. In theory Black men were to be considered citizens with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. In reality they were treated as less and subject to more violence and terror than they were as slaves. The backlash against equal rights for slaves and their children began within years of the conclusion of the Civil War. Reconstruction in the South ended prematurely and Jim Crow would rise in its’ place. Black Americans were still less than equal, a fact that those above and below the Mason-Dixon line had no qualms with. It would take another push a century later for the situation to change, and even that change was bitterly fought for.
It chills me when I think of the price that had to be paid for my people to be recognized and treated like human beings. Little girls blown up in church on a Sunday morning, grown women dragged out of their homes from their husbands and raped, voter registration workers kidnapped and murdered, college students having dogs set upon them for peacefully protesting. I used to ask myself why. I used to ask myself why we had to become martyrs, why we had to endure so much brutality for a basic concession. Now I understand. We had to fight so long and so hard because or presence as equals and citizens was never desired.
I realize that I’m still fortunate to have been born in the time and place that I was. But to borrow a phrase from Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, I’m ill at ease. I know that my rights and my position in the United States are tenuous. My freedom and equality wasn’t in the script written by the Founding Fathers. The struggle is nowhere near over, and I know now that if want to enjoy my rights I must also be prepared to fight for them.