What to the Black Citizen is the Fourth of July?

In the past couple lectures, we have been reading about the experiences of Frederick Douglass.  Though I found myself moved while reading his narrative, I found that what especially sparked ember deep within was “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July”?  Douglass states “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 cruelly to which he is the constant victim.  To your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license…”  While reading “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” I couldn’t help but think about how Frederick Douglass viewed the Fourth of July and how the common slave would view the Fourth of July.  To Douglass and the American slave, the Fourth of July is a mockery, an insult and a slap in the face.  Douglass and other slaves live in the United States but do not have the rights of citizenship.  Douglass poses the question of why he was asked to speak of a national independence that he claims he or none of the people he represents can truly embrace.  He states, “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your nation independence?  Are the great principles of political freedom and natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?”  The answer is simply no.  Douglass gives this speech prior to slaves being emancipated.  Slaves at this point in time have neither natural rights expressed by God or the Constitution but no civil, political or social rights as well.

After reading some of the above quotes, I immediately thought about how I could connect this particular reading to be relevant to today to hopefully make an interesting blog post.  So after some thought, I came to the conclusion to write about how the black citizen today might feel about the Fourth of July?  I had never really thought about the issue at hand.  So I asked friends and family to help me frame how black Americans might think about the Fourth of July.  When asking my friends, black University of Michigan students, they looked puzzled to my question and why I was asking.  I asked them to read a small excerpt of “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”  They too said that they had never thought about it.  After much consideration, we all began to speak.  Two of my best friends at the University said that when they thought about the holiday, Independence didn’t really cross their minds.  This view being very different from the view of Douglass, they explained to me that where they are from, the Fourth was an excuse for friends and family to get together and have a cookout and spending time with each other. 

So my experience being very different, I explained how the Fourth was celebrated with my family.  I grew up a military child so the Fourth was specially a day of importance around the Military families.  But as I think about it, we always celebrated the holiday with my grandparents and cousins.  For us it was also an excuse to shove a much food into our faces as possible.  After my high school graduation, my dad moved us Iowa.  He just recently retired from the U.S. Military after twenty-four years.  I now live in a predominantly white area, I’m talking we are one of the few black families that live within my city.  After being home for the summer this year, I remember coming back from Chicago to find that our neighbors had placed a large American Flag in our front yard.  This was very bizarre to me.  I had never experienced such action before.  But back to the original question.  What to the black citizen is the Fourth of July?  Why isn’t it as important to the black community as it is to say my kind neighbors in Iowa?  I think you can answer this question by stressing the importance of family.  Blacks originally didn’t have citizenship and deep within the black community, family was relied on to make it through tough times.  I am not saying the all black Americans celebrate the Fourth in the same manner but family and the community has been the foundation of the black community.  And maybe this is worth thinking about.  What do you think?


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4 Responses to What to the Black Citizen is the Fourth of July?

  1. Being raised in an African American community, my Fourth of July experience was the same as your friends who said it was an excuse to have a barbeque and a gathering of family and friends. As I grew older and entered my college years, it became an excuse to use the long weekend to go traveling and party in a different city. Not once can I remember having a truly patriotic experience on the Fourth, not even the holiday following September 11, 2001. I think the African American community as a whole is less patriotic than the general United States population due to the injustice of slavery and the oppression blacks still face today in the country. I believe it is hard to celebrate a country’s history whose legislature once viewed your ancestors as only 3/5 of a person.

  2. brandoneinstein says:

    I think the author brings up a very valid point regarding American holidays. In my opinion, Independence Day does not carry the same meaning today than it did during Douglass’ time. Today, Independence Day, and for most national holidays, have been turned into mediums for marketing and advertisement. The focus has greatly shifted as corporations “exploit” holidays as a powerful marketing tool. For example, looking at Independence Day, “Nathan’s Famous” has held a hot dog eating competition at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York since 1916. According to legend, four immigrants held a hot dog eating competition in order to determine who was the most patriotic. Today, the event is so “famous”, that roughly 2 million people watched this past July’s event on ESPN.

    My point here is, for the most part, we no longer tend to think about the significance behind each and every holiday. Instead, we utilize holidays for our economic interests. Of course holidays are a great excuse to bring family and friends together. But, like Douglass, does anyone actually take the time out of their day off from work/school to talk about the background for the celebrated holiday? “What to the slave, is Fourth of July” is an excellent portrayal of the values we have unfortunately lost.

    As the author points out, her African American friends “had never really thought about the issue at hand.” I truly believe that this is a noteworthy problem. For example, in the Jewish faith, as part of the Passover seder, the youngest member at the table is called upon to recite the “four questions”. These questions remind the company why exactly they are sitting together at the seder. Douglass’ piece is so powerful because it gives a completely unexpected portrayal of the 4th of July, yet reveals so much more about the perspective of a slave. In sum, I think it would be nice to see Americans discuss how holidays relate to their lives. We have lost so many of our values and customs overtime not because we are necessarily less patriotic, but because we have become far too consumed in the money making machine to care.



  3. jwpeace88 says:

    As an international student I do not celebrate the fourth of July, but I think this post presents a compelling case for African Americans who find it difficult to partake in joys of the Nation’s independence day.The country I am from is relatively homogeneous in terms of race and ethnicity, and our independence day is celebrated by all. I guess the same cannot be said of a nation that deprived some of its own people of their political freedom and basic human rights from the very beginning. African Americans were free after emancipation, but even then the deep-seated prejudice denied them the rights, the pleasures and the labors of those whose equal African Americans had been declared to be.

    Some may point to your Fourth of July experience as being unpatriotic, but I think it is understandable, if not justifiable, considering all the injustice African Americans have suffered and challenges they face even today. When their own country refused to recognize them as citizens and equals, African Americans turned to their families and communities to seek support. Just as you pointed out here, Douglass and Jacobs too, in their narratives, stressed the importance of family and people around them during the bondage of slavery. It was in these institutions where they could afford a sense of happiness and peace, something that the country was unable or even unwilling to provide.

  4. Jonathan Needle says:

    The importance of the holiday to the average African American in the past and the present is an issue of great significance. The history of slavery in America is a sensitive topic that will obviously never fully be diminished or completely disregarded. The foundation of traditional American society hit a speed bump with the institution of slavery, and our country still took a long time to work out the kinks and learn from our mistakes (Civil rights legislation wasn’t attained until 1965).

    I find it very ironic that Frederick Douglass would be chosen to give a speech concerning what the fourth of July means to the average American, let alone the average former slave. Yes, it was an incredible speech that I am sure made heads turn. But I am curious how the average spectator at Douglass’ submission of brutal honesty. Was it an affront to those who attended the event? (I am sure many listeners were abolitionists).

    What to the slave is the fourth of July? Presently, the better question today is what significance does the holiday hold to the average American citizen today. Centuries have passed since our declaration of Independence from Britain, and our rich melting pot of a country has made it more difficult to give an easy answer to this question. There exist today so many members of our society from wholly different origins that would be incapable of supplying an obvious answer. What does the fourth of July mean to the Latin American? What does the fourth of July mean to the average Jew? How about the religious elements in society? The fourth of July may be a full-fledged day of joy and pleasure at the triumph of our country. But American nationalism is a provocative topic. How many average citizens truly recognize the Fourth of July’s implications on our country’s history?

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