The kids were small, the neighbors had amazing (and highly illegal) fireworks displays and I loved to entertain. So, I had parties and settled for subtle resistance. Invitations and invocations were for 4th of July, not Independence Day. Red, black and green were my colors instead of red, white and blue. But I was never quite comfortable with the celebration. Now that the kids are doing their own things, I can be completely honest: I don’t celebrate the 4th of July.
As we all know, July 4, 1776, was the day the thirteen New World colonies that would become the United States of America claimed independence from England. It’s known as Independence Day. But for whom? Frederick Douglass asked the question even more eloquently in his speech, “What to the Slave is 4th of July?”
Granted, 1776 was a good year for slaves in some places. In Philadelphia, the Quakers forbid members from holding them. Delaware stopped their importation from Africa. Indeed, an antislavery clause almost made it into the Declaration of Independence:
“…he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”
It was edited out by request of the delegates from South Carolina (surprise) and Georgia. Supposedly, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the declaration, was pissed about that edit until he died. Funny, since he was a slaveholder himself. But I digress…
My point is, the 4th of July is no more about me and mine than Cinco de Mayo is about a bunch of drunk Americans. I’ve thought it might be more appropriate to fire up the grill on June 19th, or Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when slaves in Galveston got the memo — two years late — that the Emancipation Proclamation said they were free. But this year, that would have been only two days after nine Black people were gunned down by a racist in a Charleston church.
Or maybe I could decorate a special tree and throw a party on December 6, the day slavery officially ended in the U.S. with ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. But given the rate at which Black people are being shot down by police and stand-your-groundlings, it might be a rather depressing affair.
So this year, I didn’t accept any invitations to cookouts. Instead, I went to the screening of 3½ Minutes, 10 Bullets, the story of the murder of Jordan Davis, a 17-year old Black teenager shot by a White man who felt threatened when Jordan and his friends didn’t turn down their music at a gas station. The film is opening in limited release in several cities, and will run on HBO later this year. Go see it. It’s amazing in all aspects.
What made today’s screening important for me was the Q&A with Jordan’s mother, Lucy. I realized about 15 minutes into the film that she was sitting a couple of rows ahead of me in the theater. I saw her wipe her eyes a couple of times and I wonder at the strength it must take to see those images of herself and her son, fullscreen. I told her as much. I hugged her, too.
Celebration is not the right word, but that movie and the conversation afterwards? Well, it was, for me, the first truly authentic commemoration of this day.
Because the reality is this: July 4th celebrates the day White people declared freedom for White people, all the while enslaving Black people. It wasn’t my ancestors’ holiday, but rather just another day in the cotton fields. And it isn’t mine, because it’s just another day in the killing fields for Black people. A day where JWB, WWB, DWB or just plain BWB (jamming, walking, driving, breathing while Black) is enough of a perceived threat to get me or my children shot with immunity by cops or civilians.
So, I appreciate all the invitations. I believe in the goodness of family and friends, together. I know how good the ribs, chicken, fish, potato salad and fireworks were. But, I just can’t. Not yet. Maybe one day.