Frederick Douglass (Via)In 1852, the famous abolitionist, author, and former slave, Frederick Douglass, addressed Rochester, New York's Corinthian Hall at an event commemorating the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It was there in which Douglass gave one of his most famous speeches, asking what such a holiday meant to those like he who could not reap the bounty of the splendor America had wrought on the backs of his brethren and sistern. He spoke of the irony of having a black man being asked to address a crowd on the subject of independence in that time, considering it some kind of cruel joke. As year by year passes in America, as we have accomplished a great many things together as a country in our similar goals and in our strides for equality, it must be noted how for the black person in America, these accomplishments are tempered with a great many disappointments.
Thus, what to the Negro (the term Carter G. Woodson, the originator of Black History Month, said in an appendix to his 1933 book, The Mis-Education of the Negro, was the most fitting term for these people in America) is the Fourth of July? What is this holiday of freedom to a people who have only seen and received it conditionally? How do we acknowledge all the ways we have been slighted by a country to its people who willfully deny its slights?
It was James Baldwin who said "to be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage." It's to be at odds with a country that believes that four hundred years of multifarious forms of oppression —through slavery, through Jim Crow, through domestic terrorism, redlining, stop & frisk, and so much individually-doled unkindness — that our lack of advancement is our own doing. It's to know that no matter how much we educate ourselves, our ascension only gives us what others receive by default. A black man with a college degree is about as likely to be employed as a white college dropout. The American infrastructure through its policy has been constructed to block black people's ability to gain wealth and its effects are clearly noticeable. Black families who make $100,000 a year in America typically live in neighborhoods where white families make around $30,000 a year. The ability for black people to make a network, form strong business bonds, get involved with this whole nepotism thing we keep hearing about, are luxuries stripped from us through limitations like these set upon us through city planning long ago.
No matter how equivalent our vices, we are incarcerated at significantly higher rates for significantly harsher sentences (let alone the fact that America overall has had a full 1% of its 300+ million populace run through the criminal justice system, a travesty in comparison to every other nation on Earth). After working so diligently to secure the same rights as all other Americans through numerous overlapping constitutional amendments, particularly in regard to voting, new laws like voter ID and restrictions on early voting periods are made to chip away at such strides. We are told that if only we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, that we can succeed, but we know better than that in America. Respectability politics is a red herring. People are frightened by us merely by wearing a hooded sweatshirt in the rain; it's hard to fight back the feeling of helplessness, that there really is nothing we can do to assuage others in the country's fears and concerns. The deck is clearly stacked against black people in this country at yet we continue to play, for we have no choice otherwise.
In essence, a country that trumpets being a land of equal opportunity, of freedom from oppression, of freedom for all has lied to black people in numerous respects. Yet still, we are a people who love this country. We recognize its flashes of goodness. We still consider it home. We are tied to its history as any other citizen. We are devoted to its prosperity. We are committed to its future. We have served America, voluntarily and involuntarily. We are a part of its economy, its community, and its tapestry. Yet in the sense of a W.E.B. DuBoisian double consciousness, our experience in America involves reconciling the idea of a country that we continue to love with one that may not fully love us back. Our connection to America is complicated, and our feelings about this country are consistently thought of as misguided — amongst ourselves from those who may feel some different shades of this complication (for what group of individuals truly feel exactly the same about an issue?) and from others entirely who believe these disputes are all in our heads.
As Douglass stood to the challenge of addressing this day's worth to a people who have been generally ignored as being a part of the American splendor over a century and a half ago, so do we today — with frustrating patience. We strive to right these wrongs with truth in hope that others can accept and amend these wrongs. In the time since Douglass posed this question, ultimately disowning the holiday (while insisting that one cannot own what one didn't have in the first place), the black person in America has largely made those incremental strides to take some part in its freedom, all the while realizing it is indeed just a part. This isn't our holiday entirely, yet it used to not be ours at all. We now, just as he did then, see little difference between the injustices America heaped at Britain's feet and the ones Douglass laid at America's. Those injustices still abide in various forms and new ones have arisen to take the places of those that have been stripped after the nation split itself in two to fight for them and the "right" to do so. To believe that the Negro should be chipper about this day blindly is to maintain a selective history and a shockingly galling sense of myopia.
There is a conflict in this day, in our hearts. This isn't to say our allegiance is not pure, while it may not be appropriate to speak monolithicly. However for many, there's a nagging there in the back of our minds as we grill in the backyard and marvel in the fireworks that this is ours, and it's beautiful, and it's pretty great, but it's much more fragile and much more tenuous than it looks. We have a different perspective on America's Independence Day. It is a day of commemoration — of what the United States has overcome and what it has become. It is a day to celebrate this nation's endurance but to remember the large, dark spots of its troubled history, particularly as those spots bleed into the present.
It's not always easy to note these feelings, and even more difficult to share them with those who may not understand, but it's necessary. It's a day where we share our love, which is indeed tempered with sacrifice and strife, of this nation and think on how much further we all have to go to make it better. America has for 238 years been working toward bettering itself, believing that God approves of our endeavors — Annuit Coeptus as it says on the dollar bill. We have worked with the belief that this work is ever ongoing. This all is quite true, though it must be said that we all have to work much harder on some aspect than on others. This day is to remember that idea as well.