The Fourth of July
is a farce when it comes down
to Black Folks’ Freedom
“Why us always have family reunion on July 4th?” asks Alice Walker’s character Henrietta in “The Color Purple.”Harpo replies: “White people busy celebrating they independence from England July 4th so most Black folks don’t have to work. Us can spend the day celebrating each other.”
I remember years ago, my own family (on the Dove side) driving 12 hours down Interstate 95, from Philadelphia to South Carolina, to gather by the old homestead in Eastover, to celebrate the 4th of July. At least one hog had been slaughtered and barbecued, sometimes as many as two or three. My Dad and my uncles would stay up all night roasting the pigs on grills they made out of out of 55-gallon metal drums, adding their secret sauce when they were almost finished cooking. And believe me, the meat was tender and luscious. While the pulled pork was the star of the show, when the gathering commenced, there was also plenty of potato salad, collard greens, fried chicken, corn on the cob, lemonade, cakes, pies – all kinds of delights. The up-to-the-moment rhythm and blues music on the radio would be blaring. At a certain time, all the children gathered around in a circle and danced, danced, danced, gleefully transforming the dirt into dust with nary a care in the world.
None of us – neither the children nor the adults – gave a thought about Independence Day from England. And even as they watched their children twist and turn to the beat of the music in the dirt, none of the adults were foolish enough to delude themselves into thinking Blacks were free in America. But we celebrated anyway, knowing that we were untethered (at least for those precious moments), dancing and singing and talking and eating and laughing on the land our ancestors had bought, cleared, built up and made home.
For whatever reason, we don’t gather down there where the old house used to be for the 4th of July anymore. Since those golden days, the old house burned down, another one was built and now even that house has been jettisoned for a newer, prettier, ultra-modern edifice a little further up on the property. You would think our family had arrived.
Yet as I sit here reflecting from my 2020 point of view, I realize that with all the gains we have made as a race, Blacks in America, (and throughout the Diaspora) still are not free, still remain disenfranchised, still are no where near experiencing ubiquitous equity. We still face mountains of injustice on a daily basis. We are still in the throes of daily warfare, not to mention the utterly unacceptable fratricide and Black on Black crimes within our own conflicted communities. We are all very aware there is still, without a doubt, ever-present danger in our very being Black in this country. We are reverently reminded of too many of our brave foot soldiers who were lost on the battlefield. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. Trayvon Martin.
Michael Brown. Sandra Bland. Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. Freddy Grey. Reika Boyd. Dorian Hunt. And down throughout the ages including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evans, Emmett Till and countless others, too many to name.
Indeed, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them,” once wrote the journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells, who was born in 1862 and died in 1931. Talk about shining light on the truth! Especially on this day – I am reminded of Fredrick Douglass’ landmark speech, “The Meaning of the Fourth for the Negro,” presented in Rochester, New York on July 5, 1852. The masterful orator Douglass told his predominantly white audience, in part:
“…I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! -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. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can today take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!
“…Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then, fellow-citizens, is American slavery. I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view. Standing there identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! 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…”
These injustices notwithstanding, as Maya Angelou so eloquently stated: “And Still I Rise!” So you go on everybody. In spite of harsh truths about our station in this country, go on and enjoy this day. Do as Harpo said and “…spend the day celebrating each other.”
Excerpted from Pheralyn Dove’s Forthcoming Volume of Essays:
“No Time For Tears” A Book of True-Life Stories