Well, I imagine that many of you will be celebrating the traditional 4th of July holiday. You will go to picnics, barbeques, or cook-outs (as we called them in West Philly). You will enjoy family and friends and pick up softball and volleyball games. You will sit in on multiple hands of Bid Whist, Spades, or if you’re from Philly Pinochle. You will laugh, eat good (as long as the right Aunt makes the potato salad), and perhaps hang out long enough to enjoy some fireworks. But, you probably won’t think much about the actual meaning of July 4th.
I can’t avoid thinking about it. I used to teach US History and could not skip over the Revolutionary War and Thomas Jefferson’s (as the main author) document known as “The Declaration of Independence.” I also was born and raised in Philadelphia—
The “Birthplace of the Nation.” I’ve done the Independence Hall tour (in fact I once applied for a job as the Independence Hall teacher…. I didn’t get it!). I’ve walked in and out of the entire Independence Mall complex seeing the relocated Liberty Bell, Betsy Ross’ house, and strolled Elfreth’s Alley. As much as I appreciate history, the 4th of July always leaves me with ambivalent feelings! As a Black woman I know this holiday celebrates a set of events that very deliberately left my ancestors and me out. White freedom was predicated on Black bondage (and the theft of Red lands).
While the colonists were preparing to fight for their freedom, Black people were looking for a way to make the fight an opportunity to regain their own freedom. Virginia’s Lord Dunsmore, a loyalist was promising “freedom” to any enslaved Africans who fought on the side of the British. This was just one of the many broken promises African Americans would experience on these shores. There was never 40 acres and a mule. There was never equality for fighting in subsequent wars (1812, World War I, World War II, the Korean Conflict, Vietnam, Gulf Wars, etc.). Indeed, Frederick Douglass’ speech, “What to the American Slave is your 4th of July” given in Rochester, NY in 1852 is the most prescient and insightful commentary on the Independence Day celebrations. In his own words, Douglass said:
“Fellow citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions, whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are today rendered more intolerable by the jubilant shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, ‘may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!’
To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs and to chime in with the popular theme would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. “
So today we are in the midst of a national debate about the place of the Confederate flag…are we serious? Eleven treasonous southern states decide they would rather keep people in chattel slavery than be a part of the nation and we legitimate their symbols? And for everyone who says that flag represents heritage I say it represents the treason of your ancestors. More important, we know you have long used the flag to intimidate Black people and assert your white supremacy.
But there were African American “patriots.” We know the name of Crispus Attucks who is thought to be the first American casualty of the Revolutionary War. And there was also Austin Dabney, Joseph Ranger, Caesar Tarrant, and Oliver Cromwell whose names show up on the rolls as soldiers and sailors for the revolution. Lemuel Haynes, Salem Poor, and Prince Whipple were noted for their bravery but once the smoke cleared and the Americans claimed their freedom, liberty, and victory, Black people continued in the horrible state of enslavement.
So, I’m not trying to be a killjoy. Eat your ribs, grab another hotdog, and hamburger. Have a slice of apple pie if you’d like. But while you’re hoisting your “adult beverage” as a part of the national celebration take a few minutes to recognize what fighting for this nation has ALWAYS cost us!
Stay Black & Smart!