This seems like an appropriate time to refrain from the usual nod to jingoism — the NPR voices reading the Declaration of Independence, for instance — and to state plainly again that the work of self-determination, celebrated on behalf of white people, is expressly denied to Black people; and it has ever been so.
So it’s a good day to read Frederick Douglass’s speech in Rochester NY on July 4, 1852 — in which he begins with congratulations to America, on its just separation from an oppressive power.
But he goes on.
Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery — the great sin and shame of America! “I will not equivocate; I will not excuse;” I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.
… 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.
And yet there were still echoes of this in James Baldwin in 1968, as there are now, in our poisoned era of unaccountable police murder and Supreme Court-endorsed Jim Crow vote suppression: If revolutionary language comes from a white person — Irish, Jewish, or Polish, for example, as Baldwin says — we hold it up as heroic. But when it comes from a Black person; when dignity and humanity are asserted, demanded — it seems strange* and scary. In the words of our illegitimate President, who speaks for the manifest weakness and fear of his followers, a simple assertion of the moral status of Black lives is a “symbol of hate”.
There are no civic fireworks in my town this July 4th. Good. Let this be a caesura in our mandatory patriotic business-as-usual, so that we may reflect on what has been grievously missing; so that when we return, things may be very different from before. Let this present be strange and unrecognizable to us when it is past.
*Incidentally — To me, this is the express purpose of Hamilton: The surprise of such revolutionary words coming from the mouths of non-white people, expecting to be taken seriously, with the hindsight expectation of success, not the permanence of oppression.