Independence Day has always represented a time of emotional conflict for me, but this year the conflict runs much deeper than my struggle with America’s historical hypocrisy. This year, my conflict is about what’s happening right now.
Make no mistake. I love the country of my birth. But my affection is like that of a jilted lover who’s been used and cast aside. I look back on our relationship and remember the times, but in between the memory of each kiss is a flash f pain or the burn of betrayal. In between each embrace are the times my country callously pushed me away.
Now, on this Furth of July, as my countrymen celebrate the joy of independence, I am left to wonder if the increasing incidents of racism and ethnic strife represent a bump in America’s road. Or maybe this is who we actually are. Maybe the freedom we so proudly tout is unattainable for people of color. Or maybe, just maybe, there is hope in the midst of America’s darkness.
Because in this moment, where demagoguery and hate have become the order of the day, we must decide what freedom truly means. Is it the opportunity to gain all we can at the expense of the other? Or is the chance to open our hands just wide enough to share with the world?
I’m not sure what America will decide, but I know we’ve faced dark moments before, and in those times, when America was confronted with its hypocrisy, there were those who fought to hold on to the lies, and others who risked everything to expose the ugly truth.
Each Fourth of July, I reminisce on the courage of those truth-tellers. I imagine what it must have taken for them to speak against the racism that undergirded America’s gaudy talk of freedom, even at the risk of their own lives.
Frederick Douglass was one such man. As an enslaved man he fought an overseer who dared to strike him. He emancipated himself by fleeing the plantation. He learned to read and write and used the skill to reach a level of eloquence that belied the racist image of the slovenly and stupid slave. Then he used that eloquence to cut through America’s lies. In doing so, he, along with so many others, helped to open America’s heart.
In 1852, in a speech that still rings true today, Douglass spoke of the bitter irony of the Fourth of July, and its tainted celebration of Independence, even as Americans held slaves.
“The character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July!” Douglass said in a speech at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, NY. “Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery — the great sin and shame of America!”
It is a sin that still stains our country. Even though slavery was officially abolished in 1863, America continually tried to hold black Americans in bondage.
First, America did so by simply refusing to tell the enslaved that they were free, as slaveholders did in Texas. Then, America invented a system of Jim Crow laws that codified racial discrimination as an official system of oppression. Then there was the taking of land though the government sponsored plan of Urban Renewal. Then there was the War on Drugs and the new Jim Crow of mass incarceration.
Even in those dark periods, though, African Americans continued to rise, and when our rise culminated in the election of the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, we entered a period of backlash.
Today, unarmed blacks are 2.5 times more likely than their white counterparts to be shot and killed by police, twice as likely as whites to be unemployed, and we routinely face incidents of racial targeting in stores, in the workplace and on the streets.
That is our truth as African Americans, and it is a truth I will continue to speak. Because I believe as Frederick Douglass did on that Fourth of July so many years ago. This is not a holiday that celebrates freedom for all Americans. It is a holiday that should make us reach for it as a goal.