The Fourth of July looks different to Black people in the light of Juneteenth

dramatic portrait of young sad and scared African American woman suffering racial discrimination and victim of abuse and racism feeling desperate and in pain in front of USA flag
Photo: Shutterstock

This July Fourth, for the 248th time, America celebrates independence from British rule. But after President Joe Biden signed a law recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday, Americans are also forced to take a closer look at what this Fourth of July represents.

More than two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and two months after the end of the Civil War, enslaved African-Americans in Texas found out they were free on June 19, 1865.

With two wildly different — yet celebratory — liberation narratives about independence, Americans must reconcile her founding ideals with their spotty lived reality.

Black abolitionist author Frederick Douglass called America out on its hypocrisy more than a century and a half ago, in his 1852 speech, “What, to the slave, is the Fourth of July?” In it, Douglass stated that the United States, a country in the throes of slavery, must close the yawning gap between its principles and the violence and trauma this country inflicted on Black people — his words still resonate today.

“What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence,” wrote Douglass. “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.”

Yet despite the unequal treatment of African Americans in the United States, Black patriotism shines across the pages of U.S. history. African Americans fought in a segregated military in every war defending this country until 1948. Crispus Attucks, a brother of African and Native American ancestry from Framingham, was the first martyr for America’s independence in the American Revolution. Prince Estabrook, an enslaved man from Lexington and a Black Minuteman, was wounded in the Revolution’s first battle.

Enslaved Africans who fought for the British, called Black Loyalists, were ensured their freedom after the war. Enslaved Africans who fought for the United States, sadly, were not.

Oct 6, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold (58), quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) and free safety Eric Reid (35) kneel in protest during the playing of the national anthem before a NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports via IMAGN Oct 6, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold (58), quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) and free safety Eric Reid (35) kneel in protest during the playing of the national anthem before a NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Black patriotism has been exhibited not just on the battlefields of America’s wars but also in demands for equality in her streets and arenas. Let’s remember, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, for example, who protested police brutality against Blacks by taking a knee during the national anthem in 2016.

His actions were condemned as polarizing, un-American, and unpatriotic. Former President Donald Trump stoked the flames, criticizing Kaepernick and his allies and labeling them as being opposed to the American flag, cops, and the military.

In response came an outpouring of defense, celebrating Black Americans’ history of protest. Former Attorney General Eric Holder tweeted a photo of Martin Luther King, Jr., down on his left knee in Selma, Alabama in 1965.

“Taking a knee is not without precedent, Mr. President,” Holder added. “Those who dared to protest have helped bring positive change.”

As King said in his Montgomery Bus Boycott speech on December 5, 1955, “The great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.”

The controversy of taking a knee during “The Star-Spangled Banner” brought heightened attention to the song’s racist history. Francis Scott Key, who penned the lyrics, supported slavery and came from an influential plantation family in Maryland. The song’s third verse, no longer sung after the Civil War, included the lyrics, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”

When patriotism is so narrowly defined, it can only be accepted and exhibited within the constraints of its own nation’s intolerance. Acts of patriotism and protest, however, have yet to accomplish the ultimate goals of equality and freedom from oppression.

In depicting the grip of white supremacist domestic terrorism on Black lives, Malcolm X in 1965 said, “That’s not a chip on my shoulder. That’s your foot on my neck.” 

Indeed, in 2020, the world saw a now-former Minnesota Police officer murder a Black man named George Floyd — with his knee on Floyd’s neck. 

Juneteenth Fredom Day. Juneteenth is a federal holiday in the United States commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans

This Fourth of July, people will once again sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and reenact the Continental Congress of 1776. 

This Fourth, however, will be different from the previous ones. Juneteenth can no longer stand to the side of America’s celebration of independence. The newly recognized federal holiday should encourage Americans to reconsider and expand their ideas of patriotism and what loving one’s country looks like.

The juxtaposition of the two holidays highlights how Juneteenth — and Black liberation — is inextricably linked to America’s core values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans that are celebrated on July 4th

Don't forget to share:

Support vital LGBTQ+ journalism

Reader contributions help keep LGBTQ Nation free, so that queer people get the news they need, with stories that mainstream media often leaves out. Can you contribute today?

Cancel anytime · Proudly LGBTQ+ owned and operated

Donald Trump Jr. is very upset that Hurricane Beryl has a “nonbinary” name

Previous article

A new HIV-prevention injection just succesfully completed its clinical trials

Next article