america · history

“What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”

Written July 2019. Revised July 2020.

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“What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” – Frederick Douglass

I tend to call myself Black instead of African-American because “Black” covers the nations, not just America. Any child of the Diaspora can refer to themselves as “Black” and that is comforting to me. Still, neither of those identifiers unite me to who I truly am— an African. I am not technically African by cultural or ethnic experience, no, that was torn from me. That identity was stolen, ripped from my grasp, but if there was ever a quote I read and felt known because of it, it was this: “To be African American is to be African without memory and American without privilege.” I am not a fan of America, what she has done, what she represents. She is a hypocrite with blood on her hands, she speaks of liberty, freedom, and justice for all, but that is untrue. What about Indigenous people? What about the enslaved Africans? What about the “all” that many invoke in conversation about Black lives in saying “All lives matter”?

I know who I am now and I am constantly rediscovering my heritage and inheritance as a Black human. I know my place in history: the motherland, a throne, a field of my own, a tribe. My history didn’t begin with the middle passage, a plantation, or stripes with no stars embedded in my skin. I do not celebrate the Fourth of July because American freedom was bondage for me. Maybe if America had not gained independance from Britain, slavery would have ended sooner. We’ll never know now. Still, it remains that America has not held these truths to be self-evident, that all men were created equal… not when a slave was only considered a fraction of a man. Incomplete, less than, not wholly human. Women and children were even less than men, to their “owners” they were to be used and abused, sold and beaten, mutilated and raped. I am not proud to be an American.

The Star-Spangled Banner

by Francis Scott Key

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto – “In God is our trust,”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

I love that these monuments of people like Key that were erected in the glory of violence, terrorism, and gore, are being destroyed by liberating radical truth and the refusal to pretend white supremacists are worthy of honor and praise.

What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?

by Frederick Douglass.

Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in perpetual remembrance. I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it… I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — 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. 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 to-day? What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

Let America Be America Again
by Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
The free?
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,

Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—

The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!
O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

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I have never felt more me than hearing about pan-Africanism. I have never felt more united than seeing Killmonger in Black Panther, a product of love between an African prince and American Black woman. I have never felt more possibilities for a multi-faceted identity than hearing about my cousins whose father is African and their mother, my aunt, an American Black woman. I have never seen a purer reflection of everything I am meant to be than seeing a Somali woman in all her melanated beauty. I thank God for making me African. I thank God for showing me my identity, I thank God for loving me into loving me and other reflections of Him who are more like me than I ever knew. I thank God that I know my kids will never be “too dark” to be made in His image or to be fearfully and wonderfully made. And if this offends you, allow me to offer a piece of advice: Don’t let America be your god. Don’t let the flag be your cross. Don’t let nationalism dress up in red, white, and blue and masquerade as “patriotism”

“Jesus wants you free from the golden calf of racism, the idol god of white supremacy, the blindingly evil demonic oppression of being the oppressor.

Recently, I’ve been called a n*gger and lazy piece of s*it— and I have not shed a single tear or uttered a curse on them. I pray their souls find peace. It must be so tiring and burdensome to carry that much hate. But know this, dear Christian— God is not blind or deaf. God is not mocked for whatever a man sows that will He also reap. I will pray for your soul but I have also read Exodus. We are leaving with our fists raised in defiance. (Exodus 14:8)

I’m not trying to convince you of my humanity, I’m showing you what yours should look like.

You can’t serve God and keep the mentality that desired to melt gold into the likeness of creation. You can’t serve God and white Jesus and what he represents.

You can’t serve God and white supremacy.” They Didn’t Lynch a White Jesus.

 

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I am very uncomfortable, (you could even say I’m embarrassed), sharing this picture that was taken 3 years ago… but it is my truth. It is evidence of a radical personal transformation and evolution. It is my truth nonetheless. It’s me. A past self.  This version of me exists in a time long ago… It is someone who simply wanted to celebrate, to wave a flag like everyone else. I knew about my Blackness, I knew about racism, and I knew about history, but not in the way I do now. God, pan-Africanism has changed my life! I never identified with patriotism or being proud of my national identity, celebrating the Fourth was just something we did. We bought shirts from Old Navy every year and they always turned into loungewear and pajamas yet you couldn’t even pay me to wear that now. Change is real and possible and uncomfortable… but it is so worth it. I can only hope I continue to evolve radically, being true to the way God created me, feeling honest, and being holy. That’s what I want. This was never my Independence Day, but as my mother always says: “Once you know better, you do better.”

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