"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."
Nearly a quarter of a millennium has run its course since those words were enshrined on parchment in the most profound passage of America's founding text. A declaration known to every American school kid.
And nearly a half-century has run its course since I found myself pondering those words as I crossed America on the Fourth of July.
Fresh out of college, I was on my way to Africa with a dream I'd prized for years.
It was a dream imparted to me as a child by President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. I joined a cohort of Peace Corps volunteers in Senegal with similar dreams. We were "Kennedy's Kids," toiling in a foreign land, teaching, digging wells, working in health care and forestry and farming, living modestly on a volunteer's stipend, and speaking the native tongue.
We answered Kennedy's call, perhaps against the grain of rationality, while others in our graduating classes went off to Wall Street and Madison Avenue. We believed in service to our country. We believed that we could nurture human lives on a human scale.
At the westernmost tip of the continent, Senegal has demonstrated relative political stability and freedom since the 1960s. Yet, that fact belies the dark history of a land that has contributed so much to the making and unmaking of America. A shared history, which intersects with America and the Declaration of Independence.
Off shore of the bustling capital of Dakar, where Senegal meets the sea, is an isle known as Gorée Island. On that island is a house with a hole in the wall with a splendid view of Atlantic sunsets, where fiery twilights plunge into the sea.
That hole in the wall is known as the Door of No Return. It's an opening in a house called the House of Slaves, which looks out toward the New World. A world which shared complicity with countries and captains and stockholders of ships that sailed with lives stuffed like sardines into dank wooden holds bound for America and beyond.
Whether or not the House of Slaves actually served as a keep for men, women and children taken forcibly and sold as slaves is of some dispute. And immaterial. The house is a powerful symbol for a place that served as a point of no return for slave labor that fueled capitalist economies. Slaves who were sold by the boatload on America's shores. People deemed unequal in 1776 America, and whose progeny counted as only three-fifths of a human being in 1787 in our Constitution. People whose descendants numbered nearly 4 million by 1861 when a war was waged over their freedom for equality.
We went off to Peace Corps in the wake of an era of renewed struggle for equality by descendants of those slaves. A nation in the 1960s evolving from post-war prosperity, yet scarred by separate and unequal. Stained by Jim Crow. Sullied with church bombings. Soiled with lynchings. Besmeared by beatings.
Our adolescence bore witness to lunch counter sit-ins and police dog attacks. Freedom marches and fire-hosings.
We watched the brutality in Birmingham and Selma. Montgomery and Memphis. We watched cities burn. 1965. Watts. 1967. Detroit. 1968. The assassination of MLK; unleashing clouds of smoke in cities from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City, Baltimore to Chicago.
All of this, in a nation of all men are created equal. A nation burning. And yet the truth…
We went off to Senegal with our hands and our hearts in response to JFK's eloquent "ask not." We came home to a nation (even now, a half-century later) ill at ease with itself and its melting pot of races. We came home to a nation that seemed more alien to us than the one in which we served.
We came home having learned that life's riches can be measured in unhurried conversations under a baobab tree with people whose skin looks unlike our own. In the communal reach of hands into a bowl of fish and rice. In the weight of a bucketful of water perched on a head from a well that will quench the thirst of an entire village. In rows of desks where students — our students — waited intently for the miracle of formulating a phrase in English or reciting an algebraic formula.
We came home having learned we share a common humanity — a yearning for better lives — with the descendants of families long ago torn asunder by the evil of the slave trade.
We were just 40-some ordinary American kids who dreamed that we could make the world an extraordinary place. This Fourth of July, we are still uneasy with the progress we have made towards Jefferson's self-evident truths.
Now in our seventies, we RPCVs (returned Peace Corps volunteers) of Senegal 1973-75 meditate upon our own mortality and the world we will leave to our children and grandchildren. But as long as we are alive, we who had a dream will continue to work towards the goal of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all — with all the vigor of what was once our youthful irrationality.
Timothy Rake is a former educator, freelance translator and returned Peace Corps volunteer. He lives in Forest Grove.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.