Re-assessing what does “your” Fourth of July mean to an American slave?
Next week, America will celebrate its most hallowed of holidays, its July 4th Declaration of Independence. One hundred forty-five years after the ratification of the 13th amendment legislation that ended legal slavery in America, 143 years after the ratified 14th amendment made Black Americans citizens of the USA, and 141 years after the 15th amendment (with a lot of help from the civil rights-era Voting Rights Act, 1965, with amendments) enfranchised us, do the vast majority of us finally feel real about being free and independent in America and that July 4th is our favorite holiday too? In other words, can we finally lay Frederick Douglass to rest?
The answer is still not clear-cut, albeit President Barack Obama’s election and continued executive governance along with a host of other sterling advances have certainly muddled our thinking into a ‘well, maybe, but . . .’ stance.
Collectively, the vast majority of us want the answer to be yes, but every time we are about to go there, more daily micro-racisms intrude and make us hesitate. Time, beer, barbecue, firecrackers and festivities have only been able to partially camouflage this persistent unease.
On June 5, 1852 (he refused to give an Independence Day speech on July 4th), one of the best known orators in American history, the former slave, Mr. Frederick Douglass, asked the question, ‘What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” He went on, “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 denunciation 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 this earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”
Clearly, those words were true enough 150 years ago, even 50 years ago. But Denzel and Sidney have won two Oscars, Halle one, and numerous others have been nominated and considered for the best in film. We have African Americans as the highest paid performers in film and stage, and we are well known in opera, ballet and all forms of modern dance. Grammies have rained down in droves celebrating our musical talents, as have Tonies, Obies and other grand prizes. We’ve won Nobels (for Peace, Economics and Literature), Pulitzers, MacArthur Genius awards and Kennedys for splendid prose, sparkling poetry and deeply emotive Broadway plays. We’ve received accolades for being captains of industry and commercial businesses, such as AMEX, Merrill-Lynch, Time-Warner, and become some of America’s best directors and storytellers at the same time that we have become huge collectors of MBAs, MFAs and legitimate Ph.Ds. We have invented (or co-invented) grandiose and mundane American products, including the personal computer and the cell phone, and we have heroed in battle, earning several Medals of Honor and French Croix de Guerres.
Our resume of achievements is copious and still growing. From virtually no elected officials after the South won Reconstruction, we now have 43 sitting members of the U.S. Congress (currently no U.S. senators, but we’ve had four in the 20th and 21st centuries) and more than 9, 896 Black elected officials nationwide. We’ve had two elected governors (one still in office) and more than 35 major metropolitan mayors, along with numerous millionaires and a couple of billionaires.
Looking at that profile of achievements and remembering where we used to be, we certainly have much to celebrate during this maximum period of American esprit de corps. African Americans are still the envy of African descendants worldwide, especially for our access and opportunities. If liberty/freedom then is the absence of being legally owned by another and regularly having ample possibilities of earning respect and success, then Frederick Douglass’ fiery tome has indeed been rendered silent.
It is an American truth today that those of us who become individually assimilated and committed to the mainstream, can not only hope for the American dream, but through hard work and significant “luck” we can make that expectation into reality. Many Black Americans have done so.
This country has numerous examples of the middle and upper-middle class existence of Blacks in Baldwin Hills and Ladera Heights, Maryland’s Prince Georges County, Chicago’s Hyde Park , and Atlanta’s Carroll Drive.
But let’s flip the coin to see the other factual side. Racial profiling in California and in urban areas nationwide is up, as are police shootings and beat-downs of Black youth and grown men. In spite of the gigantic example of what the beautiful Black family should be (and hopefully will be again) provided by the Obamas, the Black family in America is much more dysfunctional than it is whole and nurturing. Millions of Black youth drop out, are suspended and expelled, or simply get shot out of school long before a high school diploma is completed.
African American men are the dominant jail and prison population in the world (rivaled, but not yet equaled, by Black South Africans), and too many Black youth are growing up with no clue and no role models for how to be decent, God-fearing and productive Black men, women and parents. This is indeed the incarceration generation, when the ‘down low’ has become the rule and Black men respecting Black women has become the rare exception. The bulk of the Black population seems to be addicted to relentless consumerism rather than to land ownership and independent business operations. It seems that first freedom definition above may need adjusting.
Next week, I’ll I play a little bid whist ( not Spades, an interloper’s game) backed by the neighborhood firecracker cacophony, as I knock back a few suds and wait for the domino table to clear a little, and I’ll contemplate a bit on just how far we have come and how much further we still must go. How far? Real far. ‘Cause even though some of us may feel like what we’ve got is real freedom, we sure ain’t free. Frederick Douglass still rustles in the leaves.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). It is the step-parent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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