July 4, 2021
Dear Friends of Hallie Q. Brown,
On July 5th, 1852, Frederick Douglass, delivered his speech “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” in Corinthian Hall in Rochester, NY. He’d been invited by the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, to give a July 4th speech, he opted to speak on the 5th instead. The speech was intense, poignant and challenging. It was also right. It asked the question in 1852 what could the celebration of Independence Day mean to a people who were still in bondage…asked to the very people celebrating freedom no less.
It drove home the point that freedom was not shared by all and challenged Americans to live up to the ideals that they espoused and honored.
But that was not the only July 4th speech that Douglass gave. Douglass continued to build upon this notion of what America represented and ultimately owed to Black people as citizens. Speaking on July 4, 1862, he delivered a speech entitled, “The Slaveholder’s Rebellion“, in which he securely established the cause for the Civil War as Slavery.
This speech was delivered a year into the war, and as you pay attention to Douglass’s trajectory over these speeches, he is reflecting, if not leading the sentiment of the time. His speech called for more action from the military and challenged Abraham Lincoln to not only acknowledge that the Civil War was about Slavery, but to actually emancipate the slaves, which would happen about six months after this.
In 1875, Douglass delivered “The Color Question” firmly establishing how necessary Black people have been to America. In these speeches from Douglass and the history of this country, it can clearly be seen the integral part of the establishment and the development of America that Black people have been. There is no America without the role, without the contribution, without the blood, sweat and tears that Black people have shed to help create what is arguably the greatest nation on this world. What, then, is the reason I am talking about this today and that Douglass delivered so many addresses on or around July 4th? The answer is simple, freedom and the promise of America.
We are living in an age of nearly unfettered prosperity, liberty and opportunity, yet it is denied, obstructed and even violently wrest from Black people in this nation. We, as a community, do not receive the same access to resources, the same opportunity to live, work and play, the same prospect at accumulating and preserving generational wealth to allow us to thrive…we do not have the same freedom.
Now, it is easy to gloss over the surface of this and say that people must pull themselves up by their bootstraps, as all successful people have done; that a capitalist country is based on letting the market and the people decide; that America is based on freedom, and anyone can make it here and if you haven’t, you merely have to work harder…but that ignores a fundamental piece core to America, our history.
You cannot talk about the development of America without speaking of the impact of 246 years of “free labor” and the impact that had on creating corporate and generational wealth and resources. You cannot talk about the advancement in America without speaking to the additional 100 years of discriminatory practices of Jim Crow such as the Black Codes and Segregation as well as the Klu Klux Klan all of which intentionally terrorized, injured and hampered Black people. You cannot talk about the growth of America without recognizing the creation of suburbs, redlining and FHA loan distributed at disparate rates and the impact that had on housing and stability. You cannot talk about the evolution of America without speaking of the Slave patrols which evolved into our modern day police department and the inherent bias that is incorporated into a system of law that has led to a differential in enforcement, consequences, and even death. So when you speak about America as the land of the free and celebrating freedom, how then, can Black people do so when they don’t have the same freedoms, and more to the point they have been actively opposed at every turn?
Now some people may have a hard time wrapping their mind around the notion of White supremacy being so embedded with our systems and people in positions of power as to actively disenfranchise Black people. They may think that it was merely the overt practices of Slavery and Jim Crow, and never considered just how intertwined systemic racism is with nearly every aspect of our country. But since the murder of George Floyd last year, our country has suddenly become aware of how much history they don’t know, primarily because it pertains to Black and brown folks and has therefore been omitted, covered over or actively denied. In the last year, people have learned about Juneteenth, the Tulsa Race Massacre, the 14th Amendment and so much more. It seems as if new information is emerging every day, opening a new path of knowledge. And with that in mind, I’d like to share this mere 6 minute video of Amber Ruffin telling the history of Black towns in America where the residents were killed or run off so that White people could flood them to make lakes for their enjoyment.
Yes, I said lakes.
While this has been a long missive, and focused primarily on the Black experience, it also applies to other BIPOC communities and the purpose of this is to draw attention to the fact that on a day meant to celebrate freedom, there are so many of us that are not free, and all from the practices and policies in this country that have been set up to benefit White people and maintain disparity.
Does this mean that all White people are bad or the direct cause? Of course not! Not a single White person alive today owned slaves, established the Black Codes or wrote the 3/5ths Compromise. But all of us have inherited a system that is structured by people who came before us to benefit White people to the detriment of of Black and brown people. And what that means is that the solution to this, the way that we heal the past and fulfill the promise of America is by working together, acknowledging history, REAL history and develop solutions that incorporate a system of economic repair, legal revision of the justice system, and education of what has actually transpired in this country and how to make amends.
There is no need for guilt.
There is no need for blame.
There is no need for hostility.
There is simply a need for justice.
If we can do this, if we focus on and strive towards this, then we will be able to achieve what no generation before us has: a fulfillment of the promissory note the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about in his address at the March on Washington, to provide true freedom for ALL Americans.
In closing, I would like to point out, that you, by the mere fact of reading this, have engaged in and been a part of using Critical Race Theory. This is all it is, looking at history through the lens of the impact of race and racism. No hatred, no vilification, just accountability. Which is a notion we can all agree on.
So as you celebrate Independence Day, and BBQ, light fireworks or spend time with family and friends, consider that everyone would like to have that same feeling of freedom, that same enjoyment of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. If we work together, that is what we can accomplish for ALL Americans.
P.S. I would like to wish a very Happy Birthday to my mother, Darlene Tolbert Palmer, who turns 75 today and is an American Treasure. I love you, Mom!