Centering other voices: The US and the 4th of July

This semester I am teaching a class called Social Movement and Social Change. It is the first time I have taught this course, though I had a bit of trial run last semester when I incorporated the themes of resistance in my section of the First Year Seminar. There are 25 students in class, a good mix of majors and experiences. We are using the book We the Resistance, which I have written about here before and this group of students is loving the book as well

Just as the freshman in my class said last semester, they are learning about events in our country’s history that they have not learned at all in history classes, or (if the topic has been addressed), it has been addressed in a whitewashed fashion.

The book includes Frederick Douglass’s speech “What to a slave is the 4th of July?” and none of my students recognized it as something they had heard before. After they read it, I shared this with them as well, of Douglass’ descendants reading his words:

from NPR, July 2020

We had such good discussion about this; so many students (I teach at a PWI) acknowledged they had never thought about this. A couple of my students of color (one Black, and one who is Japanese American) articulated their appreciation of having this discussion, and not assuming that we could all equally celebrate this day. We also got into discussions of what patriotism really looks like (this was a couple of weeks after Jan 6).

Later that week, I found these pieces that coincided with another part of history we were reading about: forced removal of indigenous people from their lands, and the colonization of the sovereign nation of Hawaii. Students were crushed to learn more about the Indian Removal Act, the Trail of Tears, and the coup against Queen Liliuokalani in Hawaii. They were also inspired to learn about the acts of nonviolent resistance that people demonstrated, particularly the Ho-Chunk nation in what would become Wisconsin, and the Queen’s actions herself, including demanding an audience with President McKinley.

So, to go along with the historical documents they were reading, I shared these pieces with my students: “We are not Americans, we will die as Hawaiians” ( and a blog post from the National Museum of the American Indian, “Do American Indians Celebrate the 4th of July?”

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, students were in disbelief and embarrassed that they have not thought about these perspectives before. I told them that while they might feel like they are in a history class right now instead of a social work class, that it was important to understand the context and origins of the injustice we see in current time. Centering other voices is a key part of growing our understanding.

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