Growing up, July 4th always meant popsicles and watermelon, fireworks and family, ribs and chicken. It sometimes meant a trip to Brookdale Park if my friends were coming by or Dan Foley if we were going to my auntie’s house. It never meant struggle or disenfranchisement and it certainly didn’t seem particularly political to me (except for the fact that almost everybody had the day off).
While my understanding of the national holiday and its relation to Black Americans has greatly changed over time, I still have a place in my heart for the ways it has added to my collective memory and childhood. This conflictedness and dissonance reemerges for me every year as I am reminded of what the holiday initially signified for enslaved Blacks in the United States.
Frederick Douglass’s strong critique of the White “allies” who had asked him to give the keynote speech at the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society celebration of Independence Day has been cemented in history as the embodiment of Black folks’ twoness. WEB Du Bois called it a “double-consciousness” always existing in the public sphere with Whites yet knowing that they see Blacks as a problem, the “Negro problem.” Douglass was right in 1852 when he said,
“This Fourth of 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.”
At the time of Douglass’ speech, slavery was still very much alive. It wouldn’t legally end for another decade and wouldn’t truly end until thirteen years later, marking the first celebration of Juneteenth. Thus, it is clear why Douglass refused to mince words on the ironic and offensive request that he, a man born into slavery in 1818, was standing before a White audience giving a speech on “Independence Day.”
This is my history. This is the story of my ancestors, one that is too often watered down, swept away, misremembered, and otherwise forgotten. It is a history that I am now fully aware of and equipped to act upon as I continue my struggle for liberation. But, it is simultaneously an anchor which often precludes me from truly enjoying being born in this country at this moment of history.
As someone who does the work of liberation, I spend most of my days researching, writing, and developing strategies and theories around Black collective freedom. I focus my energies on the least among us while maintaining my targeted assault on the pervasiveness of institutional racism and punitive whiteness. To a certain extent, I do these things because I enjoy a modicum of freedom, access, and privilege. These are privileges I acknowledge, knowing full well that my station and authority on these issues only stems from the particular path I took to arrive where I am today.
The conflict remains though.
As someone who knows that we are not totally free, who knows that freedom is not subjective but objective, who is aware that liberation cannot exist in a vacuum, how can I hold such dear memories of my pseudo-independence days? The days when I first saw fireworks. The days when I held hands by the water. The days when I had my first kisses and saw fireflies and hugged cousins and met lifelong friends. These were the days I longed for growing up. Living in my neighborhood in the conditions I experienced was often difficult, tense, and even scary. Fourth of July always felt like a brief reprieve from the stress of having to fight daily for the simplest of needs.
In the end, it is everyone’s right to participate in or refrain from celebration today. While I don’t plan on going ham, wearing the American flag, or even lighting fireworks, I will make more moments with my loved ones. They deserve it. I deserve it even if we are only partially free.
I’m not going to wait til we’re fully free to celebrate how far we’ve come. And, I’m also not going to forget how much further we have to go.
Photo: Public Domain