Your Fourth of July

Posted: July 4, 2022 in Uncategorized
Frederick Douglass

Thus spoke ‘the noblest slave that ever God set free,’ Frederick Douglass in 1852, in his 4th of July oration at Rochester, voicing the frank and fearless criticism of the black worker.

— W.E.B. Du Bois “Black reconstruction in America: an essay toward a history of the part which black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America, 1860-1880”

Someone asked me recently, “Do African Americans still celebrate July 4th?” As we approach July 4th, my thoughts drift back to Juneteenth. This is a time, separate and apart from July 4th to focus and celebrate on the bitter part of the American experience, which cannot be forgotten about—namely slavery. It doesn’t mean that they are mutually exclusive or that one negates the other, but they both must be recognized and observed. The answer is of course “yes.” It must be “yes” I told them, no one has loved this country more than Black folks. They not only love it, but they also died for it. They shed blood for it, and not only did they make that ultimate sacrifice that denotes true citizenship—being willing to die for one’s country—but they helped in that great project of democracy by helping it to live up to its own stated principles—that all “men” are created equal. It was this conundrum that Frederick Douglass–whom W.E.B. Du Bois called “the noblest slave that ever God set free,” in his 4th of July oration given in Rochester, N.Y.–was trying to solve when he asked (in a speech intentionally given on July 5th) “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” He answered his own rhetorically-posed question by plaintively stating, “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 denunciation 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.” Indeed it was with the arrival of Union troops in Galveston, Texas under the command of Major General Gordon Grainger on June 19th, 1865 that slavery ended in America—well after the Emancipation Proclamation as well as the passage of the 13th Amendment in January of that year, which was still in the process of being ratified. Those enslaved persons still being held in bondage in Texas—some 250,000 souls—had to be liberated at bayonet point by General Granger and his troops, who issued an order—known as General Order #3—asserting the Union Army’s authority over the state of Texas based on the military order of the Emancipation Proclamation written a full two and a half years earlier. Even though its author, President Lincoln had already been assassinated and the Civil War had officially ended, the full weight of the Emancipation Proclamation—a document some have criticized for not freeing that many enslaved persons when it was first enacted—was finally being brought to bear. Because of it’s nature as a military document, and not an emancipatory one per se, it was the only thing that could free the enslaved in Texas (and other places e.g. Florida in May, and other areas) with its bold words declaring “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” Texas was in violation of this statute, and the last of the remaining Confederate states to still be in rebellion to the Union, by continuing slavery as late as June 19th 1865. Juneteenth is also the key to understanding “the new jim crow”–forcing us to rethink the periodization of the end slavery–and the fact that there has never been a clear date for the ending of it. This suggests something about the ongoing nature of abolition, de-enslavement and reconstruction, which continues to this day. That is why both will most likely always be celebrated, even if it’s just to reflect, as Douglass did, on the bitter lessons such holidays force us to face.

For more information, visit the original Worldwide Juneteenth site:

— Additional info

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