With the viral footage showing the murder of George Floyd came protests, riots, and fiery discussions on race in America. More than any other in recent memory, this Independence Day has prompted some to question how black Americans should view the Fourth of July and what, if any, meaning it should have for those with such a troubled and complex history in this nation.
Indeed, while most African Americans celebrate the holiday, the specter of America’s original sin still lurks beneath the surface. For over a century, commemorations of that historical moment when a group of scrappy individuals elected to seize their freedom from a cruel and tyrannical government did not apply to everyone living in the Colonies. This is a fact not easily forgotten.
Echoes of abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ speech asking “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” continue to reverberate more than 150 years later. While addressing an audience in 1852, he said:
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.
Throughout this speech, Douglass laid bare the conspicuous hypocrisy that allowed this burgeoning nation to continue denying the same freedoms to black slaves that it fought a bloody war to obtain for white Americans. Nevertheless, he was adamant that, despite young America’s apparent duplicity, black people remained foundational to the founding and building of the country. He said:
If, however, any man should ask me what colored people have to do with the Fourth of July, my answer is ready. Colored people have had something to do with almost everything of vital importance in this great country … We have been with [the white man] in times of peace and in times of war and at all times. We were with him in the hardest hours of the Revolutions of 1776.