One of the duties of a 7th grade teacher is to explain to students the importance of the Declaration of Independence. It is no easy task, complicated by the challenging language and lofty ideals, that even today leave readers with questions about the very abstract notions of natural rights and equality. What often attracts 7th graders to the Declaration is Thomas Jefferson’s equivocation — his vehement desire to include the anti-slavery clause (which was excised in order to gain support of the Southern colonies and their representative to the Continental Congress). Jefferson, as they learn, was a slave holder himself, and this hypocrisy makes it a black and white circumstance for 7th graders. Jefferson wrote and said one thing — slavery is wrong — and did another. He kept his slaves, and his life of affluence, wealth and influence, rather than free them.
Because Jefferson was not alone in his equivocation, and because the Seeds of inequality were sown at the moment of American Independence, the Declaration is compelling to students when they read, Chains: The Seeds of America, by Laurie Halse Anderson.
The statement in the Declaration of Independence that begs our attention and holds us spellbound is: 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.
My friend and colleague who teaches the United States Constitution to her students uses A Box of Longing with 50 Drawers: A Revisioning of the Preamble to the Constitution to help her students see the nuanced, varied, complicated and transformative nature of the words that guide all Americans in civic and political life. The poems transformed my thinking about what sometimes, to non-Constitutional scholars, can appear a dull and impenetrable document.
There is no such book of poems to illuminate the Declaration of Independence.
My idea is to write or find a poem for each of the words in that fundamental sentence — the one that guides our core connection to each other and the one that has influenced countless other revolutions and human rights campaigns.
Contributions to the project welcome.
We is not division or subtraction
But rather multiplication and addition
The mathematics of pronouns
YOU distinctly separate from ME
In this new world of tea and taxes
We refuse to use the proper sign
Our math homework
We are not islands
Separate but equal
Tides will spill over
Erasing the sands on our shores
Fulfilling the promise of we