Most American holidays amount to no more celebration than a day off from work, store sales, social gatherings with food and drinks, which is certainly a reason to celebrate but I wonder if anyone actually celebrates Independence Day. And by celebrate I mean in the way that people celebrate New Year’s or their birthday: with a certain measure of personal joy and attachment to the meaning of the holiday. In recognition of Independence Day I re-read a speech given by Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York in 1852. It has always seemed strange to me that he would asked to speak from a “Negro’s” perspective on Independence Day. What I love is that he spoke truth with intelligence, eloquence, and complete candor. The title of his speech was, The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro. When I re-read the speech the other day I realized that the same reasons that led me to think it odd for him to give any other speech than the one he did about Independence Day was also the way I felt about truly celebrating Independence Day.
Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?
-Frederick Douglass, The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro
Independence Day Address
Anyone who could with any degree of knowledge about the history of America, standing in the present of today, who could think on this day with ruthless pragmatism and not feel a chill course through their body that leaves goosebumps on their souls would be a happier person than I. For me to do so would be intellectually dishonest as I have knowledge of American history; and I do live in the present; and I have burned such information in the fires of critical thought. And I am left with a bittersweet taste that lingers on the taste buds of my spirit and makes true celebration an uneasy, perverse delusion for which I do not decry must not deny.
For the truth remains that on this particular day 239 years from it’s origins I, as a Black American, have such limited freedoms that independence is a feeling I cannot declare to know in its truest sense. It has only been 152 years since America – in proclamation – has acknowledged that people who look like me, who share my blood, who share my culture, who share my heritage were not mindless property to be bought and sold. It has only been 52 years since America – in legislation acknowledged that people who look like me, who share my blood, who share my culture, who share my heritage were equal to those who do not. And it was in the wake of the latter acknowledgement that a war was initiated on a psychological, socioeconomic, systemic, and institutional battlefield for the tangible benefits from all of those acknowledgements began. And it is here that I stand in the thick of our combat for the freedom and the independence that we are invited to celebrate today.
But such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! – This Fourth 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 you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!
Frederick Douglass, The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro
It is with the ruthless pragmatism that I previously mentioned that allows me to say that there is some measure of celebration that could be extending from me on “America’s” behalf. In some mysteriously cruel twist of fate my very existence is linked to the history – however bloody and ugly – that, for this country, began with its declaration of independence, which is what today commemorates. It would be a gamble to imagine that any American breathing today would be here without that declaration and the horrors that followed. Who could say that without the current history intact all elements could have still come together and allowed any of us to be right where we are right now? So to that end perhaps there is some cause for celebration. But I assure you it is the kind of celebration that one might see at a Black funeral – we often call these home-goings because as a culture we endeavor to honor life and respect its transition from one of mind, body and soul to one of pure spirit. If I smile it is that kind of smile: the one that tear salted corners. And if I celebrate it is that kind of celebration: the one that comes with a heavy emptiness from loss.
But there was a time when pride in being American was fathomable. There was a time when patriotism was conscionable. Because there was a time when there was hope. A hope that was fueled by the fact that American founders declared that by the laws of nature and God all men were created equal (Declaration of Independence) and set forth that the country would endeavor to uphold those same laws and the people believed that. A hope that, when we waged war against ourselves for the freedom of an enslaved group of people living in our country and ended it with the result that all persons held as slaves should be free (The Emancipation Proclamation), we had done so because being divided for what was morally right was more important than being in solidarity with what is morally wrong. A hope that when we outlawed the ability of anyone person to deny any American the rights of their citizenship that it was because we believed that every citizen no matter what their heritage should not have to fight for their liberties. A hope that when the people opposed and protested the military actions and decisions of our government it made a difference in ending a war (The Vietnam War). A hope that when we sent a man to the moon we were showing the world what could be done with forward thinking, intelligence, and the courage to do what has never been done. A hope that when America teamed up with countries hundreds of years older than it to go to war and emerged as one of the world’s great powers to be respected it was because of America’s courage, ability to dominate industry, and to stand up for what is right. But hope withers in the presence of great disappointment and it crumbles from blatant disregard.
I could not say exactly when America began to disappoint its people and when the people lost hope in their country. More than likely it happened as most change does: a little at a time. What I do know is that we are living in a time in American history when Americans are without hope; America is without its honor; and Black Americans, specifically, are without their independence. For there can be no freedom where a group of people are tormented by their own existence. When Black mothers have to fight and pray that they see their children live to adulthood. When Black girls are de-powered and undesirable. When Black women are exploited and consumed. When Black boys are both menacing and disposable. When Black men are forgotten or devalued. When Black institutions are discredited or burned. When Black history is erased or disregarded. When Black culture is both appropriated for entertainment. What freedom is there for a group of people who do not exist unless someone else validates their existence? What freedom is there for an individual who has no identity unless it is given to them by society?
So for America I say happy National Independence Day, for it is on this day that I am able to commemorate this colonist’s political freedom from the country that oppressed them and how that act led to a series of events that led to my being here – which I may never know whether that it is better or worse than any alternative fate that may have awaited me. So as with many national holidays for me as with possibly many other Americans who have a legacy in this country of not always being considered an American (and there are a number of groups that can be included here), I allow myself to reflect on what it means personally and the feelings that it conjures. I believe this to be necessary for if one day complete and equal American privilege is ever offered to me, I’ll know what I want it to look and feel like and what it will have to be to do so. But what I cannot do, what I must not do is imagine that this holiday – as it stands – offers any personal overwhelming celebratory feelings for me, as an American who has not always been considered an American.
But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say, “It is just in this circumstance that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. Would you argue more, and denounce less; would you persuade more, and rebuke less; your cause would be much more likely to succeed.” But, I submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued.
Frederick Douglass, The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro
I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,
An Angry Black Man