Black People and the Fourth of July

 

It’s Independence Day. And this year, more than any other year, you’re likely to see how divided our country is on this celebration–particularly among white and black people. So I want to address both white people and black people in an attempt to express some truths that I think both sides need to hear. 

 

To white people

To my white friends, you may notice this year that your black friends are hesitant at best or hostile at worst when it comes to the 4th of July. Your first response might be to think they’re being ungrateful and that they’re ignoring all the great freedoms that they can now enjoy because of this holiday. While you are mostly correct(see what I say below to black people) you may also be missing something in the process. 

While it is true that everyone(including black people) can now enjoy freedoms in America, it’s disingenuous to attribute those freedoms to Independence Day. At the end of the day, plain and simply put, the 4th of July is a celebration of coming out from the tyranny of the British Empire. It, by definition, had nothing whatsoever to do with black people. This doesn’t mean that black people don’t benefit from it, it just means that any benefits that came were first and foremost for white people and secondarily at best for black people. This is obvious in the fact that slavery didn’t get abolished until almost 100 years after Independence Day. So in reality, black Americans really feel more connected to Juneteenth than we do to the 4th of July because historically that was our independence. 

While there are some black people who just want to find a reason to complain and call anything white racist, there are many black people who genuinely feel conflicted about celebrating Independence Day because of the ongoing injustices they see and experience every day. Let me put it this way. Imagine a woman who’s been sexually assaulted by her mayor. The mayor has done incredible things for the community and most people love him. Some of them know about the assault and others don’t. The town throws a birthday party for him and praises him for all the great things he’s done and that woman gets invited as well. Even if she’s forgiven him and no longer holds a grudge against him, it’s unrealistic to expect her to feel the same thing for this man as others who haven’t experienced him the same way. It’s unfair to expect her to be just as excited about celebrating him as everyone else is. That’s the position black people are in. Even if we don’t hate America, we’ve had a different experience with her than you have so it’s not as easy to celebrate her birthday as it is for you. 

I’ll leave you with some words from a Frederick Douglass speech you may have seen floating around lately:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July…? 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.”

 

All in all, when black people see white America take pride in Independence Day without also taking pride in fighting to protect her own black citizens, it seems off to us.

So when you celebrate today if you notice some black people not as excited as you are, it’s not because we’re less patriotic. It’s because we have a different history.

 

To black people

To my black friends, I have some tough love to give you. There are many reasons for us to be angry. Many reasons for us to demand justice. But in our demands and protests, we can’t forget that the America we live in today is not the America our ancestors lived in. America is not what she should be, but she most definitely is not what she used to be. And the more we ignore this, the more ignorant we appear to our white friends. Because they’re right–slavery is illegal(except for the Thirteenth Amendment), lynching is illegal, segregation is illegal. We are more free today than our ancestors ever dreamed of being. The Frederick Douglass speech is powerful, but we can’t honestly copy and paste it from 1852 to 2020. There were still slaves back then. There were still laws that made it illegal to help slaves get free. It’s disingenuous to act like everything in that speech is seamlessly applicable today.

 

Yes, there are still injustices and yes, there’s still racism. But wisdom comes from being able to address the present evil without equating it with the past evil. Married couples know this.

Imagine a husband who used to be physically abusive to his wife. Over years of marriage counseling he stopped beating her, but eventually switched to verbal abuse. This isn’t necessarily the best outcome, but it wouldn’t be accurate for the wife to now claim that he hasn’t changed and is still abusive. Technically, he is, but it’s not the same. You can do all sorts of semantics to argue that one abuse is worse than the other, but the point still remains–they’re not the same. What our ancestors experienced is not what we are experiencing. Don’t be so caught up in what you don’t have right now that you miss what you actually do have. 

 

So whether you celebrate today or not, realize that you are living the dream that your ancestors prayed for. We cannot appropriately fight for the justices we don’t have without acknowledging the freedoms we already do have.

 

Happy Fourth of July.

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