The Fourth of July to the Descendant of the American Slave
My perspective on the holiday in today’s climate
“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? “I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim” — Frederick Douglass
That is a snippet of some of the famous words delivered by Frederick Douglass a quarter-century after the founding fathers declared independence from Britain. He delivered this speech as Black people across the south languished in the bondage of slavery, no taste of the glorious freedom white Americans were celebrating. This quote then and now encapsulates the reality of what it is to be Black and American, watching civil liberties promised to you because of your nationality dangled just out of reach because of the color of your skin. Now the obvious fact of the day is that in 2020 Black people are no longer a formally enslaved race; we have the right to vote and Jim Crow laws have been disassembled, but like a poisonous gas, America’s racism shifts to fill the shape of the container it’s in, leading to voter suppression, continued housing and school segregation, police brutality, a prison industrial complex that profits off Black lives akin to slavery, and so many other ways Black people to languish under the heel of America’s white supremacy.
So what does the Fourth of July mean to the descendant of the American slave?
I can only speak to my experience so here’s what it feels like- every other day. Yup, that’s right to me the Fourth of July is another Saturday at home with my family (especially since I haven’t left much during the pandemic). Now sure in years past without a pandemic on our heels my family would’ve piled into our too cramped car (my siblings are really tall) and traveled to an aunt’s, grandparent’s, or cousin’s house to grill, swim, dance, pop fireworks, and fellowship, but even with all this, there was no particular or purposeful patriotism. Sure, my mom loved buying coordinated Old Navy T-shirts and donning my siblings and me in red, white, and blue barrettes and hats, but the woman just loves a theme and color coordination. There was never a message of “we do this because we feel so free in the good ole USA.”
Nope, like any other day being Black in America, we were navigating a gray space. We recognize our Blackness. We recognize our Americaness. We recognize our Americaness was shackled to us, not freely given or chosen. We recognize that the holiday was both built by us — but not intended for us. So we experienced it in a way that reflected that. If my family was going to be off from work, if meat, sodas, and snacks were going to be on sale, if the pool was going to be ready, well we were going to gather in the name of having a good time.
But this year… this year feels different I’ll be honest. Fourth of July coming on the heels of a reignited Black Lives Matter Movement, (not that it ever completely died out) a mishandled pandemic, and my eye-opening first year in college, well even for someone who had never particularly espoused a patriotic love of Fourth of July, celebrating full force right now feels like a spit in the face to my values in a way it never has before. Again what is the Fourth of July to the descendant of the American slave except for a reminder that I feel closer to the bondage of my ancestor than I am to the freedom of my white peers?
I realized that this year that for my values an acknowledgment of the Fourth of July as a legitimate holiday in any capacity felt like a compromise I was no longer willing to make. I’m not explicitly judging anyone who does decide to celebrate it in some capacity, Black or not. However, for me giving legitimacy to the Fourth of July while marginalized groups are still clamoring for rights felt like legitimizing the uncomfortable gray space I inhabit as a Black American. Due to slavery, I have no tangible roots outside of American soil, but that soil is wet with the blood and tears of my ancestors and my peers today. Black and American are like parallel lines running alongside each other — never touching.
So the Fourth of July is like any other day to the descendant of American slaves. Another day of balancing the gray space. Another day where a part of my identity- American- is toxic to another part of my identity- Black woman. Since I can’t change who I am and where I am from, I’m forced to address the toxicity, and I guess if it won’t change I will be forced to dismantle that part of myself and build something new in its place.