I saw a tweet recently that went something like, “We Black people celebrate the BBQ, the fireworks and the summer shorts. We don’t celebrate Independence Day.”
That isn’t true about all Black people but it’s pretty prevalent and, for the record, it isn’t about hating the country or being anti-American. Because, for better or worse, we’re Americans too.
But July 4th as Independence Day doesn’t sit well with a lot of us. You see, white people in the colonies got independence from Britain but that’s about it, and most of that independence was really for white landowners. It sure wasn’t for Indigenous or Black people.
For a lot of us, celebrating “independence” is a bit of a slap in the face when we can’t even enter or leave our own apartments and houses without neighbors calling the police on us for simply living. Or shop without being followed. Or go for a doctor-ordered walk hooked up to an IV drip without being arrested for “stealing” hospital equipment. Hell, even the BBQ thing, so appropriate a metaphor on July 4th, is the rallying point for us to complain about “BBQ Becky” types who call the police on us for no reason and thus put our freedom, health and even lives in danger.
One of my great joys during my time as executive director of the anti-racism organization Community Change Inc. has been to be a part of the annual reading in the Boston Common of the Frederick Douglass speech “What To the Slave is the Fourth of July.” (Note, the article I link to above totally got the title of the speech wrong in the headline AND in the article; maybe it will be corrected by the time you read this but boy does “What Is the Slave to the Fourth of July” change the meaning…). In any case, I would highly recommend reading the speech, which you can find here and many other places, too.
But if you don’t, at least take this part of the speech to heart:
“I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common—The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
Douglass wrote and delivered that speech 76 years after the United States declared its independence. Now the nation is more than 240 years old and still we’ve got the same kinds of problems that Douglass talked about. We still aren’t equal. Black people still don’t enjoy full independence.
I don’t ask you to ignore July 4th because a lot of you have the day off and I feel you should be able to enjoy your BBQ food and fireworks just like many of us Black people do. I don’t expect you to shred your shirts and roll around in ashes like some Old Testament penitent.
But it would be nice if you would take a moment (or a few hundred of them) to remember that the United States has never fully made good on the promise of liberty and justice for all, and Black and Indigenous people just happen to be the most aggrieved folks. We ain’t alone.
I might suggest that it’s time to give Juneteenth a place as a national holiday, though. It would probably mean a lot more than Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday to Black people who still don’t feel very free. Though to be fair we deserve both at this point, among a lot of other things. And I think starting next year, I might just resolve to stay inside on July 4th and celebrate Juneteenth instead—at least until it starts getting more love and attention like it deserves. Then maybe I’ll feel better about celebrating both.
So, as you enjoy your festivities, let us Black people and others enjoy our BBQs without police or other nasty interruptions. And if you see any BBQ Becky types headed toward us, kindly take their cell phones out of their hands and shoo them away.
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