This year was the first time that I was out of the country for the 4th of July. Independence Day is my favorite holiday, so it was a little sad to be missing the festivities.
As the few dozen Americans with whom I am studying gathered together, we looked for ways to remind ourselves of the significance of the day for our homeland. Two moments caught my attention and challenged me in almost identical ways.
First, my cohort marked the day by singing “America the Beautiful.” This happens to be one of my least favorite patriotic songs, but it was very nice to hear a song of home in this new and different place.
As we approached one particular line of the song, a classmate made a quick addition, instead singing “and crown thy good, with Brother AND Sister hood…”
The second instance was when a classmate read a portion of the Declaration of Independence. She too made an edit to this American staple, saying “that all men, women, and those who identify with any other pronoun, are created equal.”
Two almost identical adaptations of America’s expressions of patriotism that left me with an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach. On one hand, I appreciate the sentiment very much. The inclusion of gender equality in our nation’s dialog is not only positive but necessary.
The complication comes when we add this language to pre-existing historical artifacts. These media are windows to the past, giving us incredible understanding of how we, as a country, have arrived at this moment in time.
This isn’t always a pleasant image. Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s most famous, eloquent minds, had many slaves. How could something so modernly unacceptable have come in such close contact with a visionary of his caliber?
One close example of this in another historical context is Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain’s book is an incredible text that most certainly has a place in our literary history. Yet, many uses of the N-word in the text make it uncomfortable for modern readers. Rather than changing the text, though, academic institutions use the presence of this challenge as an opportunity for education, to give young readers a perspective on where our history was and how and why it has changed.
Much the same can be said about the gender language in early American works. In fact, there is an incredible lesson to be learned from 1776. At that time, the writers of the document were visionaries, radicals in the notion that all men are created equal, deserving of the same rights, regardless of religious identification. To make that statement at that time was a moment that changed the entire history of governmental discourse, and created freedoms that hadn’t existed to that point. It wasn’t the end of the road, but it was a monumental first step to getting us on the road to equality for all.
When I have children, I want them to ask me why the Declaration of Independence only says “all men” instead of “all people”. I want them to ask why the line isn’t “Peoplehood.” I want them to ask, because I want to tell them with pride that the history of this country has evolved as times have changed, and that we have grown and adapted to allow for the freedoms of today. I want my children to see proof of the past, and to be able to know that they too have the power to change the way we understand songs written yesterday, let alone hundreds of years ago.
We need to make sure that the documents we create for today are updated to reflect the values we want to show as representative for future generations. But we owe it to our past to maintain what they have to teach us, and to maintain the status of these artifacts as a representation of where we’ve come from, so that we can be prepared for where we're going.
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