Opinion » Editorial

What, to Black America, is the 4th of July in 2020?

by Rev. Irene  Monroe
Thursday Jul 2, 2020

This article is from the July 2, 2020 issue of South End News.

Rev. Irene Monroe
Rev. Irene Monroe  

This 4th of July, Americans are forced to see the nation's celebration for independence differently. The combination of Covid-19 and the ongoing protests on the streets of America have brought attention to centuries of anti-black violence with the murder of George Floyd. George Floyd's death, a cis-gendered male, symbolizes the present face of anti-black violence, as Matthew Shepard's death, a white gay male, symbolizes homophobic violence after his murder in 1998. As a matter of fact, Floyd's death appears to be an inflection point and wake-up call for white America.
The confrontation with Black Lives Matter protestors and police during this pandemic has created the perfect storm for America's democracy to face it's not-so-storied past. Most of us during this holiday will be home with family and loved ones in front of computers or televisions watching fireworks, people singing the "Star-Spangled Banner" or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or reenacting the Continental Congress of 1776. However, what does this holiday mean to Black America this year.?
The same question was asked on July 5, 1952, by Frederick Douglass. In his historic speech, "What, to the slave, is the Fourth of July?" he stated to a country in the throes of slavery the following: "What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence. . . I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine."
A century-plus later, the immeasurable distance between black and white America is revealed in every metric in society such as health, wealth, education, and employment, to name a few. The deleterious effects of 250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow followed by 60 years of "separate but equal" rule of law, brought about the gaping disparities. The core principles in American democracy stated in the Declaration of Independence are the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It's what black America is still striving for peacefully. However, the civil unrest now going on is a direct result of not being heard.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his Montgomery Bus Boycott speech on December 5, 1955, "The great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right." In 2016, San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick protested against police brutality and racial inequality. Now it's being seen on the streets of America and across the globe. Kaepernick kneeled instead of the mandatory standing during the national anthem. His action was seen as polarizing, un-American, and unpatriotic. But Kaepernick stood his ground and paid a steep price for his moral stance. The NFL and the Americans who opposed Kaepernick could never understand the lived reality black and brown men face with police brutality, sometimes resulting in a death like that of George Floyd. In 1968, Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos lifted their black-gloved fists as the national anthem was played after they won the gold and bronze medals in the men's 200-meter sprint — a gesture seen as radical and an endorsement of black power.
When patriotism is narrowly defined, it can only be accepted and exhibited within the constraints of its own intolerance. For example, racism is baked in the story of American patriotism. The U.S. National Anthem is the "Star-Spangled Banner" written by Francis Scott Key and sung at major sports events and on the 4th of July. It is one of the quintessential symbols of American patriotism. The song, however, is racist. The song wasn't meant for all Americans when Key wrote the lyrics in 1814. Not only was slavery nearing its second century, but Key was also from a wealthy and influential plantation family in Maryland. The controversial third verse was never sung at sports events or at the 4th of July ceremonies because it was offensive after 1865, the end of slavery. The verse stated the following:
"No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave."
One of our most famous American heroes is Patrick Henry, who we all know for his famous final words, "Give me liberty or give me death," in his speech on March 23, 1775, in which he explained how he views himself as the "other." "No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism . . . But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining as I do, opinions of a character very opposite to theirs,"
Democracy can only begin to work when those relegated to the fringes of society can begin to sample what those in society take for granted as their inalienable right. It's the patriotism Kaepernick exhibited at NFL games, now seen on the streets of America and what George Floyd hoped.