Words mean different things depending upon their context. That’s why it’s perfectly ok for someone to say “fire!” on stage as part of a theater production, but a crime if it’s done while sitting in the audience (that is, if there really isn’t a fire!). The question of context is important in understanding historical documents, and yet philosopher Danielle Allen boldly asserts through her new book Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality that the Declaration of Independence may be understood by anyone–that is, if read slowly and with a little help, as with her adult students who were riveted by the text. No experts required.
The ‘little help’ is the key, and gets at a larger question about who owns what and for what purpose. What if ideas are not to be thought of as being any one person’s but something to played and created with? What if Thomas Jefferson’s words, or your friend, or your aunt’s, are as much yours as theirs to play, to have, to make and re-make what we will? That is, what if there wasn’t owning of anything but rather, and simply, activities that we do together?
This is what strikes me about Our Declaration–that is, beyond the wonderful explanations and anecdotes: the invitation to collectively make meaning of the long-cherished document.
One of the many things we human beings do together is create meaning. We create meaning in social ways; sometimes this is done to liberate; at other times, it is done to control. An obvious case of words used for control is the word ‘race,’ a preoccupation of the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, the Virginian slave master whose words we continue to read and repeat today.
Prior to the eighteenth century the word ‘race’ was used as ‘lineage’ or ‘tribe’ to distinguish between different people’s cultures, locations, or other learned characteristics (for instance, religion or language–the Romans had ‘citizens’ versus ‘barbarians,’ the Zuni had ‘winter’ versus ‘summer’ people). But starting in the eighteenth century ‘race’ began to serve a political function, to rationalize the enslavement of Africans in the face of ‘natural rights’ (individual liberty), including Jefferson’s own words.
With the advent of scientific racism, started in no small part in the U.S. by Jefferson, as articulated in his Notes on the State of Virginia in 1785, it became something to be viewed as innate (not learned)–that there were some people who were innately superior over others. As Jefferson wrote in his Notes: “Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made” [emphasis added].
In recent decades genetics has shown that there are no biologically distinct races among humans; we are a single species, and yet, race continues to be viewed as something fundamental–a biological category (as if there actually are, for instance, ‘Caucasians’ in some scientific sense). Race is a social and political construct.
One need only point to the fact that racial classification has officially changed no less than twenty-four times since 1790, when the first U.S. census was taken. Moreover, race was variable at any single point of time across the nation. What constituted ‘black’ in one state changed when entering another state. For instance, Virginia defined someone as black if they were ‘one-sixteenth’ African ancestry; Florida defined black as someone with ‘one-eighth’ African ancestry; while Alabama law made anyone ‘black’ who had any known African ancestry. In this way, and so clearly, race, like other words–slavery, freedom, and Allen’s favorite, equality–is a function of power.
Allen is philosophical in her articulation of the accessibility of the Declaration of Independence; and it is the very thing that The New York Times book reviewer and Yale political science professor Steven Smith objects to (the question of whose interpretation of the document is being made) that I appreciate most about her book–her embracing of collective meaning-making by ordinary people, among others. Hers is a movingly egalitarian, democratic interpretation. Smith, however, disparagingly writes:
“Whose Declaration is being described here — Jefferson’s, Allen’s or, as the title suggests, that of our collectivity as a people? Allen’s passion for each of the Declaration‘s 1,337 words is admirable. Yet when she writes that its equality clause stands at the foundation of an ‘egalitarian cultivation of collective intelligence’ and a ‘co-ownership of a shared world,’ her analysis veers away from careful reading into the domain of wishful thinking … Allen’s case for a more robustly egalitarian Declaration makes her book timely, but that doesn’t make it true.”
Jefferson, like Allen, was a philosopher. Another philosopher, the late Fred Newman, whose democratic sensibilities I think Allen would have appreciated, used to talk about the destructiveness of truth-claims (as in assertions by those with authority) in terms of human development. Related to this, Newman also spoke of our ability to change the past–that is, to change the meaning of the past. He used the analogy of a rope as history: holding a rope on one end and gently moving it up and down, one changes what’s down the line–that is, what’s in ‘the past.’
The same rope, it seems, can bind us, and it can also free us. Like any other tool it can be used in countless ways. What we do with it, as a tool, as a metaphor, depends on … what we do with it–the ‘we’ being both what we’ve learned is possible, but also what we create together.
The Declaration of Independence, the quintessential tool/ expression/document of Americans (and others who draw upon its powerful language across the world), is subject to interpretation (a form of meaning-making). As Allen writes, “The achievement of political equality requires, among other things, the empowerment of human beings as language-using creatures.” We, too, can (and do), in our own ways, make meaning of the Declaration of Independence, just as we can (and do) make meaning of everything else.
Allen’s book is a way into this collective meaning-making of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” in our own times, and in our own contexts; it is also, through the activity of P4P, fuel for the independent movement-becoming. Fire! my friends. Fire!
Omar H. Ali, a co-founder of North Carolina Independents, is a historian at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Director of Community Play!/All Stars Project Greensboro. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Book Club Conference Call with Danielle Allen
Sunday, October 19th at 7 pm EST
Call in number 805 399-1200, access code 767775#