Larry Smith

A couple weeks ago I wrote about Juneteenth, which is the celebration that formerly enslaved African Americans created to commemorate the end of de jure bondage in the U.S. (I chose the phrase de jure because de facto bondage continued well into the 20th century.) Though Juneteenth is in its 153rd year and is celebrated across the nation, most white Americans are not familiar with it. That stands in stark contrast to July 4, which we celebrate this week. Whereas the former is sometimes referred to as “Juneteenth Independence Day,” the latter is known simply as “Independence Day.”

Much like Black History Month, the Ms. Black America Pageant and other African American celebrations, Juneteenth is the product of specific (and horrendous) historical circumstances. In short, racism and racial exclusion are the illegitimate parents that birthed these culturally specific progeny. Despite this incontrovertible truth, it is still common to hear the rhetorical lament that there is no “White History Month,” despite the fact that the dominant culture celebrates itself in infinite ways each January through December. (For the record, I have no problem with that — as long as such celebrations do not involve the denigration of people of color.) Likewise, many of our white American brothers and sisters have objected to our recognition of Juneteenth with some version of the following: “We already have an Independence Day that celebrates all Americans! Why do you want to create more division with all these (racist) celebrations?” To that question, I respond as follows: 

On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass delivered a keynote address during a July 4celebration that commemorated the 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence. The title of this powerful address, which took place at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York, is “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Among the lines that Douglass unflinchingly delivered is the following: “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” Douglass’ obvious point is that, as a person who had been born into slavery, he knew all too well the hollowness of the commemoration at which he spoke. Like castor oil, it was a bitter but necessary medicine that the nation had to symbolically swallow. (I should note that, after the Civil War, Douglass delivered a very different speech in which he emphasized how “American” Black people were. He understood that our freedom was the most tenuous of commodities. Thus, he emphasized that, in the face of our citizenship rights being threatened, it was imperative for us to be seen as loyal Americans.)

As I reflected this week on the celebration of our national independence, my mind drifted to the Battle of Gettysburg. That unbelievably bloody contest was waged from July 1to July 3, 1863. This occasion moved President Abraham Lincoln to pen and deliver one of the most famous speeches in American history. Every child has at least heard of the Gettysburg Address. (I would note that the version which Lincoln actually delivered is different from the one that is usually read today.) Following are some of the words from the so-called “Bliss Copy” of the address, which is the version that appears on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial:

“… The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work, which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Lincoln’s words were powerful and prescient, and they left a permanent impact. To my white American friends, I am not writing to say that African Americans don’t have patriotic feelings. Indeed, we understand more than most the importance of celebrating freedom. Yet, this union is still far “less perfect” than it can, should and must become. Please remember that amidst your barbecues and brews. 

 

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com. 

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