Independence Day: More Than a Barbecue?
There’s so much I didn’t know growing up. There were things my mom didn’t know and therefore couldn’t teach me. Things my teachers may have known, but couldn’t tell me because they’d potentially lose their jobs. For some reason, I thought growing up black and poor meant I had been through something that would, in turn, make me GREAT – make me successful. I wanted to be the opposite of my upbringing, but adversity with no insight or depth can be a dangerous thing.
And now, as an adult, and with a greater frame of reference, I now question and think differently about holidays; they just aren’t the same to me anymore. For most New Orleans families, I believe it’s in our nature to long for opportunities to celebrate. With so many citywide events and festivals that invite people from all over the country, it’s ingrained in us. It’s our culture. But for me, this July 4th seems different. A strange feeling passes when I get that “Happy 4th of July!” text message. I don’t respond. Even seeing the American flag waving, or the idea of dressing my son in a t-shirt of its liking feels questionable. While I enjoy the great food, time spent with family and friends, and the happiness that radiates from those who are free from their jobs on this day, I can’t help but sulk in the struggle of my people and our ongoing fight for liberty and justice, the hallmarks of this country’s human rights.
I mean, I don’t want to be an extremist and sweat out my hair by wearing black leather to the family barbecue, but I do think it is important to acknowledge that this is a holiday met with unsettling feelings for many blacks in America. The uneasy race relations and strife that linger within our country at this very moment don’t make it any better. A lot of feelings that resonated then, still resonate now as I reflect on Frederick Douglass’ depiction of his experiences during his speech “The Meaning of Fourth of July for the Negro” on July 5, 1852:
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 light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.
Conceivably, as a maturing black woman who is more conscious than I’ve ever been, the mother of a black male, and one who stands in front of a generation of black high school students each day as a professional, I’ve succumbed to drowning in my own thoughts and feelings of inequality and inequity, and the feeling for me is a real one, a haunting one, but nevertheless, a real one. The conflicting messages I witness about this July 4th only add to my racing thoughts.
Is this really a day worth celebrating?
Should I celebrate?
Should we celebrate?
And celebrate what exactly?
We surely can’t celebrate our brothers, sons, and fathers being murdered by white officers with no one being held accountable. We can’t celebrate blacks making up only 13.3% of the country’s population yet 37.7% of the country’s prison population. Nor can we celebrate black and brown students being shuffled through an educational system that has failed us since we were first allowed to enter its doors. These harsh facts leave no room for celebration.
So for now, let’s celebrate ourselves.
Celebrate our families.
Celebrate our communities.
And not just on July 4th, but every day forward. All the while, never forgetting how far we have to go, but remaining hopeful that what we’ve endured gives us the strength to keep fighting.
To read Frederick Douglass’ speech in its entirety, click here.