What to Black People is the Fourth of July?
Reflections of Frederick Douglass’ speech and how his words remain relevant today.
“I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” Excerpt from Frederick Douglass’ speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July“ on July 5, 1852
This country has celebrated July 4th as a day of pride and patriotism for all Americans. I’m definitely not averse to attending a fun barbecue, but there's this nagging twitch I can’t shake called “historical facts” that won’t allow me to view this day with the same joy it brought me as a child.
“To be (Black) in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a constant state of rage” — James Baldwin
In the past, it was much easier to go along with the status quo, wear my red, white, and blue outfit, wave my flag, and join the crowds at night to see the spectacular fireworks shows. While my parents educated me on the true history of Black people in this country, they were also very sociable people who enjoyed entertaining and having friends and family over to celebrate just about any occasion.
But as an adult with full knowledge of the condition of my ancestors on that faithful day in 1776, it seems disrespectful to acknowledge this holiday. July 4th did nothing to grant their liberation, nor did it provide them the luxury of pursuing the same American dreams afforded to White citizens and slave owners.
“Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are today rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.” — Frederick Douglass
To acknowledge this day as one of victory would be for me to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to those whose shoulders I now stand on as I advocate for the equality of my people.
The fourth of July for my ancestors only served as a painful reminder that freedom was never designed with them in mind, or their families, or even their future generations.
They were expected to embrace a lifetime of servitude, violent beatings, sexual assault, hangings, public humiliation, the separation of their families, being prohibited from receiving an education, and sentenced to hard, manual labor without compensation.
And the crime that caused the perpetuation of this desolate existence? Being born as a Black person.
“The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.” — Frederick Douglass
In honor of my ancestors, the fourth of July is no longer a day of celebration for this country. It is a day of reflection for the brave, resilient, intelligent, resourceful, faithful, and hopeful members of my spiritual family who endured atrocities that we as their descendants can only imagine.
Their dogged determination to secure a more equitable existence was driven by the love they held in their hearts for future generations they would never live to see. And for me, THIS, not fireworks to celebrate a country that continues to disenfranchise Black people, is the epitome of patriotism.
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I 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. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.” — Frederick Douglass