This Fourth of July weekend, the United States is confronting unprecedented challenges.
A pandemic is raging. A reckoning on racism is boiling over. To mark this moment, Here & Now producers asked people across the country to define freedom and what it means to be American in 2020
“Listening to them, it's both extremely hopeful and heartbreaking at the same time, hopeful because they're optimists,” says historian and founding father expert Clay Jenkinson. “They believe in the idea of America."
After listening to some of the interviews, he notes the immigrants who shared their thoughts have a “greater commitment to the ideals of America” compared to people who lived in the country their whole lives — and take it for granted.
“Many of the Americans who have been here for generations are disillusioned, jaded, cynical, feeling very angry and unsettled. I think this is one of the most important July Fourths of my lifetime,” the 65-year-old says. “We're at an inflection point and we need to really take this one seriously.”
Bao Nguyen is a 36-year-old filmmaker living in Los Angeles, California.
“This year, July 4th, it makes me think about what America is and what America can become and what America's promise is. My parents were Vietnamese war refugees who spent two weeks out at sea leaving Vietnam because they felt like they had no future in their former homeland. And I often think about them and their journey when I think about my own American journey in many ways, because without their journey, I wouldn't be here.
“For me, America is so many things. It's not just the country. It's really this ever-evolving story. We continually help create what its identity is. And I think for the most part, freedom is a social contract. It's not something that's given. It's something that's earned in many ways, even in a place like America where people assume that it's given. We've earned our freedom through sacrifice, through bloodshed, through labor and toil of people who have been marginalized and underrepresented in all these communities today that are standing up. They have fought for this freedom and we continue to fight for this freedom. And I don't think we should take it for granted.”
Lucie Hutchins is a mother, grandmother of three, wife and senior software engineer living in Down East Maine. Born and raised in Cameroon in West Africa, she came to the U.S. in 1997 and became a citizen in 2008.
“As an American, I shall feel safe and protected within the American soil from any attack, military, terrorism or biological. In a country where freedom is the norm, I shall not fear to voice my opinion. My skin color, my religion or my sexual orientation should not predict what I can do, what I can achieve, or who I can become.
“Living in America today is both shameful and hopeful. It is shameful to know that in a country with the biggest defense budget in the world, in a country with the best educational and research institutions, the mortality rate for COVID-19 is higher than it is in countries like South Korea. It is a shame that in a country where freedom is the norm, the likelihood of being mistreated, denied opportunities or even killed just because you are different is still high. Black Lives Matter is a wake-up call. I see the silent majority joining hands with the movement to demand change. I see hope.”
Anthony Tamez-Pochel is a 21-year-old Cree, Lakota, Black activist living in Chicago. He serves as vice-chair of the Center for Native American Youth Advisory Board, co-president of Chi-Nations Youth Council and works for Chicago’s 33rd Ward Alderman Rossana Rodriguez.
“Freedom to me is something that communities of color and indigenous communities, you know, we're always working towards freedom. But we've never gained it yet. Right. But I think indigenous communities more relies on tribal sovereignty and the United States, you know, respecting that. To be an American, I don't think it really means anything to me because I'm part of these sovereign nations and I'm Black. So that part of me was forcefully brought over here. And so I wouldn't say that I necessarily celebrate the Fourth of July. I have the day off so I'm definitely going to use it as a time to rest and a time to sit back and recognize my role for both of my communities, my Black community and my native community.”
Jon Rogers, 60, worked a coal miner and lives on a farm in Western Kentucky
“The coronavirus has been very problematic, obviously, and people's nerves are on edge. And there was a very terrible thing that happened to a man by the police, who we trust. And it was terrible. We've got to come together as a nation and we can work through this. Our freedoms were given to us by generations before us. And it's our responsibility to protect those freedoms and hand it down to our children and our grandchildren. And we can do that without fighting among ourselves if you will. That's my opinion.
“I lost both my parents Iast year. My father served in the military and he told me about freedoms. It's very important for us that have never served to understand what a gift we've been given. We just need to guard the freedoms that we have because freedom is the right to be able to live your lives like you want to. And we as parents need to make sure our children understand that.”
Davon Goodwin works as a farmer and food hub manager. He lives in Laurinburg, North Carolina, with his wife, Kenya, and their children, 8-year-old Amir and 4-month-old Olivia.
“I think for me honestly being a combat veteran, on one end freedom means protecting and serving this country. It's very honorable and I know I'm proud of my service. But then on the other end, being a young Black male in America, it doesn't seem as free. It just doesn't feel good. To me, what it means to be American is you should be able to dream. And I don't think it's monolithic. I don't think you can just all look at yourselves as being American. Even though we all live in the same country, we all don't get the same opportunities in the same country. Until we get change, I think a lot of these meanings that we hold as Americans, they don't mean the same anymore. They don't have that same feeling that we normally feel for Fourth of July and this holiday weekend. I don't feel that way.
“This Fourth of July, I will be probably working. My wife's an E.R. nurse so she deals with COVID patients. So we're a little nervous but like I explain to everybody, just like when I was a soldier, what I signed up for. As a nurse, she signed up to serve, you know. And no matter what, that's your duty, even though in these hard times we have to kind of be very mindful of where we go or what we do. But at the same time, we can't stop living. I think the next six months will be definitely a defining point in America's history with the 2020 election coming up. Depending on how these last police brutality cases, how they play out, that will be another defining point, how we go forward as Americans.”
Zohra Nasar is a 22-year-old student who also works as a medical scribe in Hyattsville, Maryland. She came to the U.S. from India four and half years ago.
“As someone from India who's also Muslim, when I was growing up, I actually saw girls like right after they graduated high school, they had to get married. And they were never allowed to get an education and stuff. I never thought I would live like this right now in America alone. So for me, that is freedom to me. And being able to work towards my success without somebody dictating it, although I still am Indian so my parents do have a little control over my life, but that's freedom to me.
“I still want to be a citizen because a huge part of my life, I built it here and I was able to actually do that because of the opportunities here. That's what I like about America. But at the same time, with all the racial injustice that we're witnessing right now, that is also a bit of a conflict. Because if I ever have my own children here and things like that, I have to carefully think about different situations for them too so I am conflicted on that. But I think here I would live a better life than I would live back home.”
Kent Stephenson, 33, does dirt construction for a living in his home state of Texas.
“Freedom is freedom. And I feel like everybody in the world has kind of lost the fact that, you know, freedom comes with opinions. We're all entitled to our opinions and in our own way, our opinions are correct. And everybody's kind of like lost the fact that their neighbor's opinion is right in a way, even though you don't agree with it. Everybody's kind of about biting back. That's just the biggest thing. We have freedom of speech. You have people saying everything and doing everything from all over and, you know, from riots and protests. And they're right in their way of it when you think of it from their side. And then you got people defending it and they're right from their side. It's like we got to learn to find that compromise between ourselves. I think as long as we all keep our faith in the right places, it's all going to come out and be right.”
Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz represents Queens neighborhoods Corona, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights in the New York State Assembly. She is the first Dreamer to get elected to the state legislature of New York.
“For me, being American is about privilege. Not only the privilege of being able to vote, but the privilege of not having to worry about being separated from my mom because we have a little piece of paper that guarantees us certain constitutional rights. My mother and I came from Columbia when I was nine years old and for a very long time it was just her and I. Then my two sisters and my brother were born and we also had this beautiful baby niece who's two and a half, and she represents everything we fought so hard for — the idea of having a future in the United States, of being able to have an education and being able to work. That is what my baby niece represents.
“When I think of freedom, I think of what parents have given up to make sure that their kids can survive. And to me, that means the immigrant parents who fled countries of origin. To me, that means the Black and Brown parents who are going out every day now to protest, to make sure that their kids don't have to endure what they've endured. To me, freedom means the ability to have those opportunities and to fight for them.”
More From Historian Clay Jenkinson
On calling 2020 “the year we couldn’t breathe” in an opinion piece
“It begins with George Floyd, eight minutes and 46 seconds. But then I reflected that everyone who's been on a ventilator and there've been tens of thousands [who have] also said, ‘I can't breathe.’ And I think it's worse than that. I think as a civilization, as a nation, we're having a hard time breathing. We're hunched over where we're frightened. We're worried about what's about to come. The discourse is so poisonous in some respects that we just can't step back, take a deep breath and enjoy the blessings of American liberty. And so I think we need to learn to breathe again. Each of us individually and as friends and as couples and as a culture.
“But we also, I think, need to remember that [Thomas] Jefferson, even though, you know, he's a highly imperfect human being, a slaveholder, among other things, he launched that sentence: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' And what I've been reflecting on this week is that if that didn't mean everything, then it meant nothing. In other words, if it means white males of a certain property base, then it's a meaningless statement. If you say all human beings are created equal, at some point you're going to have to step up to that ideal. And if you don't, you're just humbug.”
On Thomas Jefferson’s controversial legacy
“I'm so disappointed in Jefferson. When I started doing [Jefferson impersonations] a couple of decades ago, he was riding high and he was almost regarded as an accidental slaveholder. And that was foolish. Now we know it's just the opposite end of the spectrum. That puts him into a very difficult position. He's a hypocrite and maybe a contemptible hypocrite. And there are people that just can't take him seriously anymore because how could you say that all human beings are created equal and then buy and sell them and somehow learn to live with that whopping contradiction? So this is a period in which Jefferson is really on the ropes. And I take it very personally because I love him, but I think that that sentence is much, much, much greater than Thomas Jefferson. And we need his principles, even if we're gonna give him a D minus or worse in his personal behavior. The biggest mistake we could make would be to jettison Jefferson and the Jeffersonian just because we've now realized that he was a highly imperfect man.”
Ciku Theuri, Marcelle Hutchins, Emiko Tamagawa, Ashley Locke, Chris Bentley and Francesca Paris produced this interview. Tinku Ray and Paris edited it for broadcast. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.
This segment aired on July 3, 2020.