If we aren’t fully free, how do we celebrate this country’s freedom?
Next Monday, Americans all over the world will celebrate Independence Day, the day the thirteen colonies declared their independence from the British crown. On July 5th, 1852, however, Frederick Douglass was not in celebratory mood. In a speech to the Ladies’ Antislavery Society, Douglass discussed the history of Independence Day and acknowledged the bravery of the founders. But he had an important question for his audience, “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?” This question still resonates today.
Douglass emphasized that the traditional celebration of the July 4th, 1776 could mean little to the millions of enslaved Africans in the United States. The freedoms proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and the rights enumerated in the Constitution had not been extended to the entirety of the United States at the time. Thus, in his scathing speech, Douglass proclaimed these celebrations to be nothing but hypocrisy and asked, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?”
The history behind the Fourth of July may still give many African Americans pause, as we were not truly free or truly independent (at least legally) until the end of the Civil War and after years of struggling for social and political rights in the United States. Many would say that we aren’t even free today. Thus, a heavy cognitive dissonance infiltrates what should be joyous celebrations for all Americans.
What, then, is worth celebrating on Independence Day?
We can celebrate the activists and advocates who have worked, and still work, for our freedom against tyranny. We can celebrate our founding mothers and fathers—from Harriet Tubman to Ida B. Wells, from Martin to Malcolm, from Barack to Michelle. We can celebrate the Civil Rights Movement, and black queer organizers, like Bayard Rustin, whose contributions are often obscured in our collective movements. We can celebrate the progress we have made.
We can celebrate our families on this day. We can (and should!) enjoy the break from work and the traditions, the recipes, and the spirit of fellowship that have all been passed down from our ancestors. Our collective joy is as important and worth celebrating as our collective struggle and advocacy work.
We can celebrate today’s iterations of the centuries long black freedom struggle. We salute the courageous Black Lives Matter movement, as well as those involved in movements for black lives that have been behind the scenes, quietly working without support or recognition. We celebrate the young and old, queer and straight, black and brown freedom fighters that are organizing for a freer future.
While Frederick Douglass struck a chord that still rings true centuries later, I find that there is something to celebrate on this year’s Independence Day. The “Founding Fathers” may not have had us in mind as they declared themselves free on this day 240 years ago; yet, we, as African Americans, can nevertheless celebrate our enduring spirit as a people and the continual work that we do in the name of liberation for all people.
Photo: Courtesy of Catherine Malandrino