Life, Liberty, and The Pursuit of Happiness;

A Short List of People in America Who Were Not Freed in 1776

By Arleen Jenson
(“Jenson,” They/Them)
Farm Manager and Co-Owner, SisterLand Farms

Independence Day celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence in particular, but has become a holiday celebrating American freedom in general; complete with patriotic merchandise, eating outdoors, the wearing of nationalist symbols, and fireworks displays.

What often goes unmentioned during the holiday is: Very few Americans were free on July 4th, 1776. Many more are—even now—still fighting for the most basic freedoms we claim to cherish: The freedom to vote, to live healthy lives, and to pursue happiness.

The Indigenous American: Referred to as “savages” in our Declaration, native inhabitants of America (and their families) were denied their autonomy, voices, lands, resources, and prosperity. Fifty years after July 4th, 1776, the Indian Removal Act forcibly pushed eastern tribes into unknown federal territory; robbing them of ancestral lands, farms, and wealth—all so that their collective land could be resettled by white land owners. It has not been returned. Tens of thousands died during what is now considered a completely American act of genocide. Moreover, the racist treatment of the Indigenous American continues today; with many living without access to the wealth, legal freedoms, or reparations they are owed.

Black Americans: Frederick Douglass was once asked to speak on the 4th of July, and chose to speak on exactly this—that the celebration was not inclusive of Black America; that the struggle for independence was one being fought against the same sort of person who authored and signed the Declaration itself. It would take nearly 100 years for slavery to be abolished, and over 200 years for every state to ratify the 13th Amendment. Black communities have the least access to voting stations in the US, and 1 out of 13 Black adults are denied the right to vote due to disenfranchisement. Today, a Black adult is five times more likely to be incarcerated than a white adult—and incarcerated peoples have almost no independence at all; often working in the American textile and agriculture industry while captive—for around $.33/hour. This begs the question: Did slavery end, or just adapt?

The Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated: Despite the fact that federal and state laws can change and evolve (not to mention cultural and moral shifts,) the imprisoned population serving time for non-violent crimes is staggering; with America having the highest rate of incarcerated citizens in the world. Over 6 million Americans are not allowed to vote because of a felony on their record; robbing us of valuable insight into our own system of criminal justice. Moreover, the American prison system radically impacts the health and wellness of even liberated prisoners; with the likelihood of death-after-release spiking just weeks after leaving prison.

Minority Americans: America maintained racist immigration laws long after the Declaration, limiting the number of incoming migrant families if they were non-white; an idea that has recently resurfaced. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, America built and filled concentration camps to intern Japanese American families against their will. After the September 11th attacks, Sikh Americans bore the brunt of a wave of domestic terrorism by white citizens. During the COVID-19 epidemic, Asian Americans are—again—the subject of harassment and abuse. Despite changes made to abhorrent naturalization laws in the 1960s, subtler laws exist today that cap the influx of migrants from countries like Mexico. Once legally within the US, minority citizens are still often the victims of hate crimes, assault, discriminatory policing, and racist hiring practices.

Women: No woman in America was allowed to vote until 1890—over 100 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence—and voting was not a federally granted right to women until 1920. Women received the right to equal pay in 1963, and to education access in 1972. In 2020, women earn about 82% of what a man earns doing the same work. 90% of adult rape victims are women, with 94% of those reporting detrimental PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

And more: Because who is truly free when so many of our peers, our coworkers, and our loved ones are not? How limited is our view and vision of America if so many Americans are kept forcibly on the outskirts of freedom?

If we’re not fighting for the independence we claim to love, what are we celebrating?