The Fourth of July is a day when many Americans celebrate and rejoice in our nation’s freedom from a then-oppressive regime who sought to keep its people suppressed through armed forces and the rule of law.
For other Americans, particularly those of color, the Fourth of July is complicated, because although it is, by nature, a celebratory day to remind us of our oppressive past, it’s also a day to celebrate freedom.
Freedom of thought, freedom of religion and freedom from oppression and this is why it’s hard for many African-Americans to truly celebrate the day given that we, as a people, were not given those very same freedoms as our white counterparts for so long.
Seventy-five years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a civil rights leader (long before the term came en vogue in the 1960s) stood up before a crowd in 1852 and said, “this Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn…. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?”
That leader, Frederick Douglass, was reminding us then, and to a certain degree now, that although it’s important to celebrate our nation’s birthday, it’s equally important to put it into proper context from an African-American perspective.
Consider these uncomfortable facts: When the Declaration of Independence was signed, many blacks were still enslaved here on this continent, but ironically many blacks were totally free in England – the very country that was oppressing white Americans.
In fact, many blacks sided with the British during the Revolutionary War because they thought that fighting for “mother England” would give them a better chance to gain freedom from slavery here in the United States.
To be fair, there were plenty of blacks who fought for the union, but did so with much trepidation and hedged their bets that after “America” won the war, they would come to their senses and grant freedom to blacks, because after all, weren’t they (meaning the whites) fighting for freedom for all? Freedom from oppression from “mother England”?
That’s a logical thought that many blacks had during the time, but as we know, and as history has proven, nothing could be further from the truth.
It would take another 100 years after the Revolutionary War for slaves to obtain freedom and another 100 years for blacks to gain some sort of “equality” after the civil rights movement.
So when people ask why some African-Americans struggle with the meaning and significance of celebrating the Fourth of July, there is a conflicting thought: How can I celebrate the independence of the country that denied my people theirs?
This thought process is logical, emotional and historical; and the question becomes, how do we move forward?
How do we celebrate an Independence Day that honors that we are all free now, while acknowledging the inconvenient truth of our past?
These are the answers that we as Africans-Americans seek, and these are the questions that we, as all Americans, should be asking.
After all, Dick Cheney said is best when he stated that, “freedom means freedom for everyone.” Well said, Mr. Cheney. Well said.