“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 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 the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”
–excerpt from “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” written by Frederick Douglass (1852)
It was on July 4, 1776 that America gained her independence from British rule. Each year, the nation celebrates freedom from her oppressors, and glorifies in the inalienable rights of humanity, and the justice her foundation rests upon. But on that day, when America won its liberty, African people were being brutalized, branded, and beaten as property of those who called themselves Christians. And although Black heroes fought as American soldiers in the Revolutionary War, they did not fight for the freedom of the mass Black population (Black soldiers were granted individual freedom, however).
The great revolutionary and intellectual Frederick Douglass delivered a powerful speech in front of hundreds of patriotic White Americans, explaining the irony of Independence Day on July 5, 1852.
Black people were still captive until 87 years later, when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863. Some would argue, we are still not free.
Now that African Americans are no longer confined by the chains of slavery, are theoretically given the same rights as any White man, and are free to own property, what then does the Fourth of July mean to today’s Black people and does it have any significance?
Scott Brown, an African American history professor at UCLA, says these days, the holiday to many Black people is just another time to get together. In the days of Frederick Douglass, Black people were not given rights and not treated even as second-class citizens.
“I think Black folk, even in the age of Obama, are still very skeptical about these issues of equality.
The issue of explicit citizenship is no longer on the table, but people are still raising questions with issues of equality, poverty, etc.” Brown explained. “But I think there are enough cultural things that Blacks have done around the Fourth of July that kind of gives it a parallel meaning. It does not necessarily hearken to the American exceptionalist’s kind of laudatory moment that it may mean for others.”
He also shared that, for him, Independence Day is not a day of remembering the “founding fathers,” but it is about remembering those who have fought for freedom like Martin Luther King, Jr., Marcus Garvey, and others who have “narrowed the gap between the rhetoric and the reality.”
For many African Americans, the holiday is more of a social event rather than a reflection period, Brown suggests. He says around this time of year, it is atypical to see Black people, or Americans in general holding reflective conversations about what it means to be American. He begs the question as to whether people are truly patriotic.
“I think it is a moment in American nationalism, but there is a nationalism that has over the course of the history of this country that is very exclusive and non-participatory for African Americans, for women, for various people of color etc.,” he said. “I think about what people say about this country. I think about it in terms of that this is really a work in progress. It’s not a finished product. Because of these great ideological developments (people say) this is the greatest country. If it is the greatest country, which is clearly up for debate, it’s because Black folks, people of color, and women struggled.”
M. Keith Claybrook, an Africana Studies professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, believes Black people should and have celebrated the holiday.
“African Americans should celebrate the Fourth of July and any other celebration around the world which commemorates freedom from domination and oppression,” Claybrook commented.
“African Americans should celebrate Juneteenth to commemorate the freedom of their own ancestors from bondage. However, we should be clear that freedom from colonialism and freedom from chattel slavery does not indicate freedom from exploitation, subjugation, and degradation.”
He says throughout history, African Americans have demonstrated patriotism by fighting for the country, for example. According to the professor, Black people have long sought acceptance in the United States, so this holiday is one that provides an avenue to illustrate patriotism and loyalty.
On the day of Obama’s election, a wave of relief rushed over African Americans, clinging to the hope of that promised freedom. Claybrook reminds that even in this new age, Black people should not lose sight of the task at hand. Although on paper everyone is equal, many of us have experienced another reality.
“To this end, African Americans should celebrate all struggles for freedom, embrace that experience, while not taking it for granted. At the same time, understand, the struggle has not ended. There is work to be done on a national level, a group level, and an individual level. Not one before the other, but simultaneously,” Claybrook concluded.
In lieu of the Fourth of July and in the shadows of the Douglass legacy, African Americans know best what it means to fight for freedom. In the midst of patriotic confusion, American reflection, and Black revolution, the Fourth of July is a celebration which the nation will commemorate forever, regardless of whether Black people decide to participate in it or not.