Tag Archives: declaration of independence

Thoughts on “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead

This is a book that was selected to read for the book club to which I belong. Because it’s a book that deals with slavery, the subject matter is disturbing, as well it should be. It is a disturbing topic and demands a brutality in language in order to capture the horrors of slavery.

She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to stop theft. She had seen boys and girls younger than this beaten and had done nothing.

(p. 34)

At one point in the book, Cora, a runaway slave, is hidden by a couple in their attic. The scene reminded me of Anne Frank. But the internment in the attic space is used to  explore the question of what constitutes freedom.

What a world it is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway? Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from the outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.

(p. 183)

Shortly afterwards, Cora considers the Declaration of Independence, and how it relates to her concept of freedom. She comes to the conclusion that freedom in America is an illusion, based upon the shadow of an idea that existed in the past.

… the Declaration of Independence was an echo of something that existed elsewhere. Now that she had run away and seen a bit of the country, Cora wasn’t sure the document described anything real at all. America was a ghost in the darkness, like her.

(p. 184)

The last thing I want to mention regarding this book is the symbolism of the underground railroad. On the surface, it represents the possibility of freedom from bondage; but it also symbolizes something deeper. The underground railroad is a metaphor for the private self, the deeply personal aspects of your story that remains hidden from view. Additionally, it symbolizes the black collective consciousness, a collective story of a people forged from the individual stories of those who struggled from their freedom.

“We’re not supposed to talk about what we do down here,” Royal said. “And our passengers aren’t supposed to talk about how the railroad operates—it’d put a lot of good people in danger. They could talk if they wanted to, but they don’t”

It was true. When she told of her escape, she omitted the tunnels and kept to the main contours. It was private, a secret about yourself it never occurred to you to share. Not a bad secret, but an intimacy so much a part of who you were that it could not be made separate. It would die in the sharing.

(p. 272)

Overall, I really liked this book. It was disturbing, thought-provoking, and inspiring. While I sadly considered how much has remained the same, I also had to acknowledge that much has changed too, which provided me with hope. We still have a lot of healing to do as a society, and that healing has to start by honestly looking at the problems we face and not forgetting the darker aspects of our collective past.

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Declaration of Independence

DeclarationIndependence2

Reading this never gets old for me, regardless of how many times I have read it. It is a masterpiece and is as pertinent today as it was when it was written over 200 years ago. Although we have come a long way as a society, we still struggle and groups are still discriminated against. Injustices still occur which are justified by religious dogma or corporate despotism. And while it’s easy to point out the things that are wrong in our country, I can’t help feeling optimistic when I read this document. As long as we maintain a view of the ideal, we can move forward as a society.

Rather than spend a lot of time reflecting on the text, I figured I would just include it here in its entirety for you to read and hopefully get inspired. I copied the text from the US Government Archive’s website. Have a happy and safe Independence Day!


IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

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.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

 

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Reading Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” On My Way To A Demonstration

CivilDisobedienceWhen I was in college, one of my English professors commented that we study literature because it matters, that is makes a difference in the world. I firmly believe that to this day. So, as I was preparing to board a bus with 100 other protesters and travel four hours to Raleigh (the capital of North Carolina) to participate in the Moral Monday demonstrations, I thought about what I should read aboard the bus for inspiration. I decided upon Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau. I could not have picked a more perfect book.

Although Thoreau wrote this in response to the slavery issue, his words are as powerful and relevant today as when they were written back in 1849. At one point I had to force myself to stop copying quotes from the book because there were just so many that struck me as important.

Thoreau asserts that the government is used by “comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool” to further their goals and agendas. I am in complete agreement. Anyone who follows politics knows how lobbyists and powerful donors sway the legislation that is enacted. And corporate influence is some of the most insidious, because, to quote Thoreau directly: “It is truly enough said, that a corporation has no conscience.”

Thoreau alludes to the Declaration of Independence when he talks about the need to refuse and resist allegiance to a tyrannical government, but he also stresses that we should show opposition to an inefficient government, and personally, I feel that this is a major issue that we face today. Our government spends more time bickering and arguing about petty things that nothing of substance gets done, and when things do get done, it is only because of partisanship and not because of concern for what is best for the citizens.

All men recognize the right to revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.

At one point, Thoreau lashes out against the apathy of citizens, who do nothing or very little to effect change in the country.

They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have to regret. At most, they give only a cheap vote…

Protest outside NC Legislature

Protest outside NC Legislature

Anyway, I was able to finish the book on the ride to the demonstration, which challenged the current administration’s legislation that is stripping the rights and benefits of many citizens across the state.  I could go into a lengthy discussion on everything that is going on, but I won’t. If you are interested, I encourage you to read more on your own. Here are a couple of articles that can get you started:

I’d like to close with another quote from Civil Disobedience, where Thoreau challenges us to improve upon our current system of government.

Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man?

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The Declaration of Independence

It has become customary for me to read the Declaration of Independence every July 4th. I think it’s important to keep fresh the principles on which this country was founded, especially when it seems that these principles are being distorted, neglected, and flat out broken. I recall several years ago, visiting the National Archives in Washington DC on a July 4th weekend, and thinking how our government was founded on a piece of paper, as opposed to the crown jewels that represent British government. It did make me feel proud to be an American.

I’d like to start by mentioning one of the more recognizable passages from the text: “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.” I’ve thought about this passage a lot this past year, as I’ve seen the rights of American’s being stripped away because of their sexual orientation. The pursuit of happiness means that individuals should have the right to be with a person who makes them happy and to share the same rights as all other citizens.

The document continues to list the offenses of the king against the colonies. As I read through the list, there were several that stood out as applicable today.

  • He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good. — I see this occurring on a daily basis in Congress. Votes are cast along party lines without regard to whether a law benefits the citizens. Even worse is when laws are passed that benefit corporate interests at the expense of individuals and communities.
  • He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures. — This occurred just the other day here in NC, when the state legislature dragged out a session, causing a House representative to accidentally hit the wrong button on a vote to overturn a fracking ban. She immediately announced her mistake, but the people seeking to overturn the veto refused to allow her to change her vote and viewed it as a victory.
  • He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands. — I have just one word to say about this: Arizona.
  • He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries. — All I could think about as I read this one was Clarence Thomas. Let’s face it, he is not the picture of unbiased interpretation of the Constitution. And yes, Supreme Court justices tend to be either conservative or liberal, and I believe maintaining a balance is good, I have yet to see Mr Thomas vote in any way that would make me think that he is not a puppet.
  • He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people. — As I think about the environmental destruction of our resources and coastal regions for the sole purpose of monetary gain and to quench our insatiable thirst for cheap energy, and how people are now suffering as a result of assaults on the environment, I feel quite certain that our founding fathers would be appalled at what we have allowed to happen.

I encourage everyone to let go of the petty team mentality that has caused such a rift amongst Americans, resulting in intolerance and animosity that is based solely upon whether a person is considered progressive or conservative. Get involved, read, make educated decisions, and do not allow yourself to be swayed by propaganda. You can take the first step by carefully reading the Declaration of Independence right now.

Click here to read the text from the Archives’ website.

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