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Black Folks’ History with Independence Day: It’s Complicated

Yesterday, NPR released a powerful video featuring a number of Frederick Douglass’ great, great, great (and great) grandchildren reading his “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” speech that he originally delivered to “a large, mostly white crowd in Rochester, New York on July 5, 1852.”

I spent a lot of yesterday thinking about that speech and the NPR piece. I played it for my mom and on that particular day, at this particular moment, it stirred in both of us the medley of conflicting feelings most Black folks have about the 4th of July—and America—in general. A mix of feelings I think is best summarized by Chris Rock in his 2004 special, “Never Scared”

If you’re black, you got to look at America a little bit different. You got to look at America like the uncle who paid for you to go to college, but who molested you.

Yesterday, #FvckTheFourth was trending on Twitter and that sentiment colored my initial impression of Douglass’ descendants’ recitation of his famous speech. And in the middle of my feelings, I remembered an Atlantic article from a few years ago, “When the Fourth of July Was a Black Holiday

Before the Civil War, July 4 was not just an exclusively white holiday, it was a white high holiday.

Before the Civil War, white Americans from every corner of the country had annually marked the Fourth with feasts, parades, and copious quantities of alcohol. A European visitor observed that it was “almost the only holy-day kept in America.

Black Americans didn’t share the same enthusiasm and reverence for The Fourth.

…and those who did observe the holiday preferred—like Douglass—to do so on July 5 to better accentuate the difference between the high promises of the Fourth and the low realities of life for African Americans, while also avoiding confrontations with drunken white revelers.

But after The Civil War, it was a completely different story.

African Americans like Douglass began making the glorious anniversary their own. After the end of the Civil War in 1865, the nation’s four million newly emancipated citizens transformed Independence Day into a celebration of black freedom. The Fourth became an almost exclusively African American holiday in the states of the former Confederacy…

As you’ve probably already guessed, that didn’t go over well with white Southerners.

In Charleston and elsewhere, whites deeply resented their former slaves turning the Fourth into a commemoration of black liberty. What “a dreadful day” it was, complained one Charleston planter in a letter to his daughter. A local merchant lamented in his journal that the nation’s holiday had become “a nigger day”: “Nigger procession[,] nigger dinner and balls and promenades,” and “scarcely a white person seen in the streets.” Even some Northern whites could not abide what they saw. At the 1865 festivities in Mobile, federal troops from Illinois and Indiana were overheard wishing newly freed slaves dead…In the years that followed, as white Southerners began implementing segregationist laws and customs, they quashed official black celebrations of the Fourth.

In non-COVID times, the Fourth of July weekend is a big multigenerational deal for my family—many of the earlier generations from the South. Army-sized orders are made at Suzy-Qs and Chiavetta’s and Dapper Goose and Butter Block and Gates Circle Liquors. We talk a lot of sh*t, laugh our asses off, get old folks who almost never drink lit, and we even invite white folks. People stay too long, invite friends and extended family we don’t even really know. We pack take-away bags like we’re a grocery–shopping bags stuffed with plastic containers and still have a week’s worth of leftovers.

And we never hold that celebration on the Fourth.

It’s sometime that weekend but we’ve never felt compelled to have it on the actual day. We actually try really hard to avoid having it on the Fourth. Maybe it’s some epigenetic marker from the trauma of having the celebration taken away. Maybe it’s because we’ve all internalized Frederick Douglass’ speech and find it still depressingly relevant. More likely, it’s because while we love the time off work, we have no interest in celebrating the birthday of the benevolent uncle who’s still molesting us.

Written by George Johnson

George Johnson

Buffalo Rising Co-Founder. Designer (Product, Graphic, Motion). Geek.

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