Trying to understand the 4th of July from an African-American perspective
“It’s Independence Day, dammit, not the ‘Fourth of July,'” properly noted a close friend on Twitter.
This was countered by what I consider another valid point. “That depends on who you’re asking,” responded African-American Jefferson County (AL) Commission candidate Iva Williams. “Plymouth Rock landed on me!”
In my opinion, there is a lot of truth to both sides of this issue. As the exchange started with the comment made by Georgia libertarian activist Jason Pye, I should first note that I’ve never observed a whiff of racism in Pye’s words or actions. Pye, who is white, has been targeted and threatened by some racist groups in Georgia for his belief that all people should be treated equally under the law. Additionally, I’ve never observed race-baiting on the part of Williams and my observations indicate that he truly judges people by “the content of their character.”
Pye has good reason to want to celebrate “Independence Day.” It’s a remembrance of the day that Americans formed a new political identity by throwing off the yokes of European tyranny and oppression. If any one day could be identified as a turning point for freedom in western civilization, this is arguably the date which should be marked on our calendars.
“It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more,” wrote John Adams to his wife Abigail.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” reads a portion of the immortal document we observe on July 4th. However, common practice at the time didn’t provide the same rights to one sector of America: African slaves.
It is estimated that half a million people, or one fifth of the total American population, in 1776 was enslaved.
While I certainly take a great deal of pride in the fact that a lot of people risked their lives, liberty and property to secure a nation free of Europe’s chains, I’ll never forget that we placed even crueler chains upon a significant segment of our own population. As those of us of western European ancestry don’t harbor positive feelings about the way we were treated by Great Britain, Willams has no reason to harbor positive feelings about the way African-Americans were treated at the time of our nation’s birth.
In his book John Adams, David McCullough notes an advertisement in the Phildelphia Journal:
TO BE SOLD: A large quantity of pine boards that are well seasoned. Likewise, a Negro wench; she is to be disposed of for no fault, but that she is present with child, she is about 20 years old … and is fit for either town or country business.
On the flip side of the coin, McCullough writes in 1776 this commentary by General John Thomas about “Negro” soldiers: “…for fatique and in action; many of them have proved themselves brave.”
One example of such bravery was recounted by John Greenwood:
…a Negro man, wounded in the back of his neck, passed me and, his collar being open and he not having anything on except his shirt and trousers, I saw the wound quite plainly and the blood running down his back. I asked him if it hurt him much, as he did not seem to mind it. He said no, that he was only to get a plaster put on it and meant to return. You cannot conceive what encouragement this immediately gave me. I began to feel brave and like a soldier from that moment, and fear never troubled me afterward during the whole war.
One of the most dramatic moments of my life was being stationed in Germany when the wall fell. The only traffic jam in which I’ve enjoyed being caught was the sudden exodus of people fleeing from Soviet Bloc countries. My three closest friends were all in the same unit and of the same rank: one white, one black and one hispanic. We delighted in watching the faces of those escaping the tyranny of the east. We shared a common pride for our contributions, and there was no reason for any of us to harbor any feeling of shame.
Even Thomas Jefferson, who I admire for a variety of reasons, certainly must have shared a feeling of shame with many of his countrymen at the time of our nation’s birth. In a draft version of the Declaration of Independence, he wrote that the British crown “has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere.”
This section was dropped at the insistence of delegates from South Carolina and Georgia.
While the Constitution was being drafted, debate over the rights of African-Americans continued. At the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, a compromise was reached and this wording (emphasis added) was finally settled upon: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”
If my country was to allow those of my race to be enslaved, I’d not be likely to celebrate this sort of “independence.”
If my country was to only count me as three-fifths of a person, I’d not be celebrating this, either.
As a white person of mostly European ancestry, I understand the pride that most Americans feel on Independence Day. As I’m not black, I’ll probably never be able to truly understand the feelings of African-Americans on the topic. Were I black, I’d likely feel a sense of pride that many of my ancestors laid down their lives to promote a system of government which eventually led to the freest of societies in the history of the world. I’d probably also wish to ensure that people never forget the absolute horrors of slavery. As many of my white friends want us to learn from the positives of the founding of our country, my black friends want to ensure that we truly understand our history so we never repeat the same mistakes.
This country has come a long way regarding racial issues since 1776. For the most part, the law requires that people of all races are to be treated equally, although in practice this isn’t always the case. At times, the legislative pendulum seems to swing too far in the other direction. To be quite clear, I’ll fight any legislation which limits the rights of members of any race.
Additionally, we’ve still got some cultural ground to cross. If my skin tone was darker, there are still plenty of counties in the deep south where I’d not “let the sun set on my black ass.” As a white person, I don’t spend much time in those places, either. It’s not necessarily better up north, where racism is often more covert: “She’s not like us” is still whispered at many blue-blood cocktail parties.
“America experiences a new birth of freedom in her sons and daughters; she incarnates the spirit of her martyred chief,” noted Martin Luther King, Jr. in “The Negro and the Constitution.”
This Saturday, I’ll certainly understand why my Republican and Democratic friends will be flying the red, white and blue. I’ve an even deeper appreciation for my libertarian friends, who will mostly be displaying the Gadsden Flag. If I was black, I might be tempted to display three-fifths (respectfully folded and secured with pins, not cut with scissors) of an American flag.
“And I with my brother of blackest hue possessing at last my rightful heritage and holding my head erect, may stand beside the Saxon, a Negro, and yet a man!” concluded King while Jefferson wrote that “Every generation needs a new revolution.”
My Army experience in Germany taught me that people of all colors can form very close bonds when we don’t have racial barriers between us. Perhaps people of all races can spend a few minutes trying to wear shoes of a different color this July 4th. Perhaps we can start a revolution Jefferson might have welcomed so King’s Saxons and Negros are no longer divided, but are merely men.
The blood all races have shed for this country is of the same color: red. It’s time that we all learn to sit at the same table to discuss our common heritage of fighting for freedom. I can’t think of any better day to open the dialogue than on July 4th.
Originally posted at Birmingham Libertarian Examiner.