LOS ANGELES, July 3, 2016 – I was cradling my one year old son in my arms last night while my wife and my older boy (he’s 5) watched one of those “How Is It Made” documentary episodes on Netflix in our apartment in South L.A. Our windows were hanging open to let the hot summer out and to welcome in the cool of the evening. A pop sounded in the distance, turning my head.
Then like thunder after a lightning strike a violent boom cracked out from up the street, setting off car alarms, jolting my little boy as my wife’s head snapped with annoyance towards the window.
I had started to get a little nervous with the first pop, suspecting it might be a gunshot but the boom that followed served as an abrupt and bellowing reminder that July 4th is just around the corner, and like every year the celebratory pyrotechnics start early. My wife hardly flinches (she’s heard enough of gun shots and fireworks to quickly know the difference).
But to call it celebration is to really misidentify what the 4th of July is in inner-city neighborhoods.
It’s not a day to celebrate the freedom and independence of America. It’s an excuse to barbeque, and blow stuff up.
In fairness, that’s pretty much the way it is for most people I observe, especially young people in America’s cities, disconnected as so many are from any visceral connection to America’s history or the legacy of liberty.
In a time where Christmas is about presents and Easter is about bunnies and chocolate, it’s not surprising, though not good either, that people would be detached from the meaning behind our patriotic holidays as well.
For African-Americans, however, it is easier to understand the hollowness of this particular holiday, the tendency to not revel in the glory of America’s founding triumph. The colonies may have declared their freedom on July 4th, 1776.
The freedom of Africans in America, however, was not declared that day. In fact, the independence that the colonies ultimately won ensured a deepening and a continuation of the malicious servitude to which blacks were bound for another 89 years (some 32 years longer than slavery would likely have lasted had the colonies remained under British dominion, seeing as slavery was abolished in England in 1833).
Even the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War hardly mark occasions for which black people generally might be inclined to light fireworks over. Whereas the freedom gained by America in 1776 opened a path of self-determination for its free population (and its white-male population in particular) the absence of slavery beginning at the end of the war in 1865 hardly amounted to presence of freedom.
Set loose in the world without education, without land, at the mercy of terrorists like the Ku Klux Klan and unwanted in cities in the North and rural lands to the west, the transition of blacks in America was not from slavery to freedom so much as it was from slavery to a more complicated type of oppression.
It’s a sad thought to think that Independence might feel, well, irrelevant to many blacks, but I suspect it does. To fair, however, just as there are countless patriotic African-Americans, so too are some able to see past to unequal distribution of liberty conferred on that historic day to tie the continuing mission of America to live up to the promise of freedom to the freedom that blacks in American have achieved with time.
It is interesting, and critical I think, to note that Africans in America died fighting for the freedom of these colonies. The first blood spilt in the Boston Massacre, so history tells us, was that of Crispus Attucks, an African born in America, and likely a slave. A black man was the first to die for American freedom, but he would hardly be the last, neither in the Revolutionary War not in all the wars to follow. The freedom that is a crucial part of the American dream has always been owed to African-Americans and their children by right, and by virtue of the very creed which America professes to represent; that all men are created equal.
Many black people don’t look at Independence Day as a holiday that was meant for them. But they should. We should. The freedom that all American’s should celebrate on this day is a freedom that we fought for, same as everyone else. Though it may have come to us belatedly, and in some senses still seem incomplete, the rights to liberty and its celebration are ours as much as any others. I hope all black Americans come to recognize the truth, that this day belongs to us too.