The Continental Congress voted in favor of independence from Great Britain on July 2, 1776. The first Independence Day celebration complete with fireworks was July 4, 1777. Since that time, the 4th of July has been a significant day for white Americans.
At its creation, the 4th of July had no significance for black people. The Ladies Anti-Slavery Society invited Frederick Douglass to speak at their Independence Day celebration in Rochester, New York, in 1852. Douglass was born into slavery in 1817; he escaped from it in 1838. He hardly had warm, kind, appreciative thoughts about America on its Independence Day. In his speech, “What To The American Slave is Your 4th of July?” Douglass said, “the Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty and call upon him to join in your joyous anthems were inhuman and mockery and sacrilegious irony.” Douglass went on to speak on the subject, “American Slavery.”
Like Douglass, I have never felt that the 4th of July celebration was for black people. It commemorated white America’s freedom, not ours. It had no significance for me growing up in the South. My family and those I knew were busy making a living while dodging the arrows of white supremacy.
No group is more patriotic than African Americans: Tuskegee Airmen and others of that generation; Dr. Martin Luther King, and the Civil Rights workers; my uncles who served in World War II and the Korea War; my husband who served in the Air Force; my three brothers who served in the Army during the Vietnam war; my four brothers-in-law who served in the Army, Navy, and Air Force. I appreciate African Americans who serve today in government, the military, on the frontline, and the essential workers. I praise the activist and protesters who are marching, teaching, writing, speaking, getting beaten by police, and dodging Covid-19 to push this Nation forward toward a “more perfect union.”
I have spent a few 4ths of July holidays in my latter years watching fireworks, attending outings and family gatherings, hearing speeches and patriotic concerts; Yet, I struggle with the idea of what it means to be American. America is 155 years from slavery’s end (55 years since the Voting Rights Act passed.) If a generation is 30 years, then I was born 2.5 generations from slavery; therefore, maybe I am too fashioned by that history to feel truly American. I live American — obeying laws, paying taxes, and enjoying some freedoms while being a good citizen. Yet, I do not feel American.
I am presently concerned with whether my vote will count and whether the police and vigilantes will continue to murder black people for sport. I worry that black and brown hopeful immigrants are halted at the border and refused entry (America welcome immigrants again.) I am concerned about the unemployed (create jobs), the low- income families (raise the minimum wage) with hungry children (SNAP), the homeless (affordable housing), the mentally and physically ill ( healthcare for all). I worry about black children who are poorly educated by teachers who do not know, understand, or care about them. I am concerned about how children without computers and internet access will be successful in life. I am worried about the environment.
I have been hopeful at times, but harmful, racist, rhetoric, and divisive politics have hindered America’s progress in governing and race relation since January 2017.
Frederick Douglass said, “Whether we turn to the declarations of the past or the professions of the present, the conduct of the Nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”
Especially now, as America is uncovering and releasing long-held animosity; and resurrecting and creating racist tropes to use as weapons against black people.
What to the African American is the 4th of July? That is for each to decide. But I will not do anything special to commemorate this day. I pray that I will feel better about America on the next 4th of July.