What Does Being American Mean To You Right Now?

The question Frederick Douglass asked 166 years ago could not be more meaningful today.

J.W. Hurn/Library of Congress

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.

On July 5, 1852, before the Ladies’ Anti-Slave Society in Rochester, New York, Frederick Douglass (who, by the way, did “great work,” as President Donald Trump blundered in 2017) delivered a piercing 2,500-word speech on the perverse irony of celebrating America’s independence as a black man who had been born into bondage. 

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” he asked, before offering a brutal answer: “A day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.” 

One hundred and sixty six years later, those words still ring true. Slavery is over, but the foundation of exploitation that it encoded into America’s DNA is still bearing bitter fruit. In 2018, it’s easy to feel like the United States seems to be civically unraveling, one legislative thread at a time. In recent weeks, the government has found new ways to prolong family separation at the US border with Mexico, while the Supreme Court has made it harder for workers to unionize and easier to ban people from Muslim majority countries from entering the country. And with the impending retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy and a new Trump appointee to the Court, we could see the end of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized a woman’s right to choose abortion. 

But if history is any guide, America is a draft that’s always under revision.

What—and who—gets edited out, and who gets to do the editing in the first place, is what power is really about, after all. And as David Beard writes in our weekly roundup of good news, Recharge, those battles are playing out in big and small ways in places all over the country. Volunteers are going to the border to help migrant families, students are speaking out at graduations, and residents are working together to make their communities brighter.

This Independence Day, we want to hear about how you’re helping to shape America’s story. What does being American mean to you right now? And what are you doing to either reinforce or change that definition? 



Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend