Comedian, actress and writermoved to New York six years ago. On Independence Day, as the country battles the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests, she reflects on the country she has made her home.
Isn’t America fascinating? As the country convulses in an effort to remake itself this election year under the deadly shade of a pandemic, and lurches forward with a resurging civil rights movement, I can’t take my eyes off the place. It’s Independence Day today, marking the anniversary of the 1776 adoption of the ‘Declaration of Independence.’ This document is quite gorgeous in its aspirations, written by the representatives of 2.5 million people in just 13 colonies and absolutely trashing the despotic British regime.
They refuse to be governed by the British for a moment longer and this right of the people to emancipate themselves and form their own government is surely a worthy event to celebrate. Of course, as with everything in a nation founded on genocide and chattel slavery on the one hand and “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” on the other, it is not that simple. As with many American holidays, like Thanksgiving and Columbus Day, Independence Day must be critically scrutinized to be fully understood.
To help with this I look to two Americans who have both, at various times throughout history, been vilified and valorized. The first is Thomas Jefferson, one of the signatories of that cherished document, a man who would go on to become the nation’s third president.
As he lay dying half a century after signing the declaration, he described what it meant to him in a letter.
May it be to the world, what I believe it will be ... the signal of arousing men to burst the chains ... and to assume the blessings and security of self- government. That form, which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. ...For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.
Glorious, isn’t it? Thomas Jefferson wrote that from Monticello, his 5,000 acre plantation where 130 enslaved people worked at any one time. According to the property’s archives, Thomas Jefferson enslaved over 600 human beings throughout the course of his life. Not only did he profit from their labor, he profited from buying and selling them.
Female slaves had no legal right to refuse sexual advances from their owner, and Jefferson fathered at least six children with an enslaved woman named Sally Hemings.
He also wrote, unsurprisingly, that he suspected black people were inferior to white. It is crucial to understand this horrifying context when reading the Declaration of Independence. It is important to question whether or not this reality makes the entire document a sickening joke.
Frederick Douglass seemed to think so and he was more qualified than most, being born as he was into slavery and becoming one of the greatest intellects to ever come out of America. On July 5 1852 at an Independence Day celebration he’d been asked to speak at in Rochester New York, he scathingly asked his predominantly white audience "Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?"
He was explicit in his condemnation of the holiday. "This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn." He followed up with some of his most damning and righteous words, that still today will stop you in your tracks.
“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 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 sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks- givings, 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. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”
It was more than a decade after Douglass made that speech, years that saw a bloody Civil War and the eventual abolishment of slavery, more than 400 years after its brutal beginnings. And yet today, when I read his speech again and substitute ‘American slave’ with ‘African American’, his words ring absolutely true. To witness the gross injustice and cruelty Douglass spoke of almost two centuries ago, we need only fast- forward to today and see with our own eyes a white police officer murdering George Floyd, a 46 year old black man and father of three, on a Minneapolis street this May.
Douglass referred to America’s denunciation of tyrants as ‘brass fronted impudence’. Hearing President Trump’s threat to turn the military loose on his own citizens, a threat made outside the White House in June as police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at peaceful protestors gathered there, teaches us that this hypocrisy lives on too. Douglass’s parting shot, about ‘the shocking and bloody practices’ carried out by America translates easily into the systemic oppression of black and brown people today.
Huge progress has been made since the days of Douglass and Jefferson but compared to a white person, a black person in America today is more likely to be shot by the police, to be arrested, to be jailed, to live in poverty, to be negatively affected by climate change, to die in childbirth, to die of Covid-19, and to die young. None of this is by chance; this is not an arbitrary set of tragic facts, rather it is the logical result of hundreds of years of white supremacist policies coupled with the insatiable neo-liberal brand of capitalism adopted by America these past three decades. Living there, it was easy to be dismayed at such a seemingly inevitable situation, until recently.
#BlackLivesMatter was founded in 2013, following the acquittal of the man who murdered Trayvon Martin, a black teenager. Three black women; Patrice Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi created the umbrella group alongside the social media clarion call to “explicitly combat implicit bias and anti-Black racism and to protect and affirm the beauty and dignity of all Black lives.” This must be done, they stated “through a lens of race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity.”
The movement cut its teeth in the 2014 Ferguson Uprising that continued for more than a year after a white police officer there shot Michael Brown, a black teenager. BLM organized and strategized and showed up ready for this moment in America, this moment catalyzed terribly by the videoed police murder of George Floyd.
Wouldn’t it be the sweetest of ironies to see Independence Day come full circle, to witness this year’s celebration transform from a tired roll call of hollow lies into an actual attempt to snatch that liberty mentioned in that long-ago declaration? In many ways the Declaration of Independence predicted this revolt against white supremacy, you only need to read its first few lines to see that.
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
BLM has declared the causes, and black Americans are leading the charge towards a nation that resembles the one those slave-owing white men alluded to in their words but never their actions. It’s a thrilling time, echoing other moments in history where that change seemed within the country’s grasp, but all the more exciting because it’s happening right now; and unlike the past, the future not yet written.