Frederick Douglass’ critique of July 4th is as relevant today as it was in 1852.
It’s that time of year again: fireworks and family, booze and burgers, hotdogs and heat. As our nation gathers to celebrate this country’s independence from Great Britain, I must ask myself, what exactly are we celebrating?
It is a question I consider each year, but this year it seems most pressing. I often turn to Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” his speech made on July 5, 1852. He put it best when he asked “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?” He offered this question to the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in Rochester, New York, to rhetorically ask how a nation can celebrate its freedom while slavery still existed.
Douglass declared “this Fourth of July is yours, not mine” when America still had slavery, but his words are as profound today as they were over a century ago. On Independence Day 2018, I have a similar sentiment: how can we celebrate the ideals of liberty, freedom, and citizenship, when those very ideals are threatened each day?
We have a presidency that sanctions—well, encourages—continued disrespect towards women, undocumented immigrants, and people of color. Every time I check the news, the president is offending someone, perpetually putting all our lives in danger while his administration strips away more and more of our rights.
No need to look far to see how citizenship is regulated and racialized in the every day, as white people feel increasingly emboldened to call the police on innocuous activities by African-Americans. Case in point: Alison Ettel, aka “Permit Patty,” initially denied calling the police on an eight-year-old selling water in San Francisco on June 22.
Yet her local news organization obtained a copy of the audio of the call, where she reported a “suspicious person.” The girl was raising money for a trip to Disneyland after her mother lost her job.
Facing a similar scenario, 12-year-old Reginald Fields mowed Lucille Holt-Colden’s lawn on June 23, in the Maple Heights neighborhood outside Cleveland. Reggie mistakenly cut a parcel of grass on the neighbor’s side of the property line, angering the white neighbors and leading them to call the police. This is not the first time Holt-Colden has had the same white family call the police on her; it has happened at least five times since she moved in last October.
The police showed up, but no action was taken, thankfully, because as recent history indicates, they can have a “shoot first investigate later” mentality. In fact, thanks to the neighbor’s call and the subsequent social media outcry, business has grown for Mr. Reggie’s Lawn Cutting Service. Now the twelve year old and his peers can buy new tools and a shed to house them.
But, this raises the question: since when is it a crime for children to earn money in the summer? I don’t know who deserves more of the blame – scared white people who call 911 on innocent Black children or the police who show up. I would hope that cops have enough training, common sense, and discernment to know that Black kids earning money in the summer isn’t exactly a life-or-death situation.
Even in death, racism can rear its ugly head. At the recent funeral for Agnes Hicks at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Charlotte Hall, Maryland, one of the mourners went to hug another mourner, and accidently knocked over a chalice. Pastor Michael Briese angrily responded by kicking out the mourner and the deceased: “There will be no funeral, no repast, everyone get the hell out of my church.” What type of Catholicism does he subscribe to? To add insult to injury, he called the police on the mourners. To their credit, the police determined no crime was committed, then escorted the casket and mourners to a church in another county to finish the service.
Hearing these stories makes me tremble: we live in a society that still allows the gross mistreatment of African-Americans. That the two enterprising children were conspicuous to white people sounds like a violation of slave codes — when Blacks who ventured off the plantation had to carry papers to prove themselves to white people, lest they be deemed runaways. In the case of the two Black kids, the racists who called the police on them were hardly threatened by their actions, but by their autonomy and subjectivity. Earning money for themselves is now rendered criminal, just as in the antebellum period.
Similarly, the fiasco of Ms. Hicks’ homegoing service is reminiscent of the history of segregated funeral practices in America. For a long time in this country, African-Americans’ had to go out of their way to mourn and bury their dead. Ms. Hicks had to be mourned in another county thanks to the racist overreaction of a broken chalice by a “man of the cloth.”
These stories reveal a disheartening narrative of America’s steady regression: We are returning to an antiquated time of heightened surveillance and legal separation of Blacks, as well as violence at the hands of the white powers that be. Let’s not forget, modern policing got its start as patrols of the enslaved. Or as KRS-One put it: “Yeah, officer from overseer; you need a little clarity? Check the similarity.”
This regression isn’t evidenced only by calling the cops on innocuous Black activities, but also in policy initiatives. For the record, this has occurred for longer than we can imagine; we just know about it now because of the ubiquity of cell phone cameras and social media posts.
Last week, Congress’ three African-American senators introduced a bill to make lynching a federal crime. If it succeeds, this bill would make history considering firstly, 4,700 people were lynched between 1882 and 1968 (that we know of); secondly, states have historically argued that lynching was a state matter that did not concern the federal government; and lastly, almost 200 pieces of anti-lynching federal legislation failed to pass in Congress in the first half of the twentieth century.
It is very telling that Senators Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Tim Scott introduced the bill now. They must be taking into account America’s shameful history with race, fearing that lynchings might rise again given how much our present resembles this past.
According to Reverend Jesse Jackson, anti-lynching legislation is long overdue, especially given the new forms of lynching that persist: “Blacks are still being lynched today. Not just with a rope. Unarmed Blacks are being killed on a regular basis and it must be addressed. More people were killed after slavery than before slavery. Prior to the ending of slavery we were considered assets, but after slavery we were considered a threat, because we could vote. We need this legislation now.”
We are still considered a threat. Just ask any Black person who had the cops roll up on them while doing absolutely nothing.
Though the federal government is silent on lynchings, they are quite vocal about abolishing affirmative action practices. The president’s administration will now discourage college presidents and school superintendents from using “race as a factor in diversifying their campuses.” This, coupled with Justice Anthony Kennedy’s impending retirement, means that schools no longer have a mandate to ensure diversity, or rectify the historical exclusion of everyone who is not white and male.
My goal is not to sully anyone’s Independence Day celebration with the weighty matters outlined here. I am just mindful not of how far our nation has come, but how far we still have to go. This Fourth of July could be mine when racist white people stop calling the cops on hard working kids, when hypocrite priests don’t end a funeral because of an accident, or when the government takes anti-lynching legislation as seriously as they take up affirmative action.
Maybe this is too much to ask at once; I will settle on a president who brags about humane treatment of immigrants instead of boasting about sexually assaulting women.
In the meantime, I intend to spend my Independence Day wondering who’s really free, as I ponder Frederick Douglass’s prescient ideas about how we should spend July 4th:
“The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”