"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." Frederick Douglass
I know we are approaching a major weekend, the "birthday" of the United States, and before I go any further, let me state that I am a proud American citizen. I believe in everything good about this country, but I also must as a citizen exercise my right to point out some of the obvious sins of this country. In the words of the famed author James Baldwin, "I love America more than any other country in this world, and exactly for this reason, I reserve the right to criticize her perpetually."
While the 4th of July is a major celebration for many, it is a staunch reminder to others, primarily people of color, that we were not and still in many cases are not free. The first Africans were introduced to this country in chains as chattel and slaves, stolen and looted from the coast of Africa and transported through a painful and deadly journey now known as the "middle passage" but crafted as the trans-Atlantic slave route. 1619 was the arrival of the first slaves to Virginia, so by 1776, the country was 157 years into the process of slavery, and as the unrest brewed that led to the desire of the freedom of the 13 colonies, there was never an inkling to seek freedom for the millions of Black bodies enslaved within the colonies.
When those white men with white wigs and Black slaves gathered to craft the document titled "The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America" that we now call the Declaration of Independence and penned that statement, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," they did not consider us (Blacks, African-Americans) worthy of the same items they wrote about. Understand that after 157 years, all the slaves that were in shackles on their plantations were born on this country's soil, the soil of the aforementioned 13 United States of America, yet we were not considered in the crafting of the document that sought freedom for the very states we labored in.
When we were considered, it was only to decide on the distribution of congressmen, and then only the male slaves were counted as three-fifths a white man for the census. So in the Bill of Rights, crafting the constitution for this newly formed country, we who had been here since almost the beginning, cared for, nursed, did the work to ensure the wealth of the slave owner, were still only considered slaves, three-fifths a man. So in 1776, we weren't free, and in 1789, we weren't free. Even the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation wasn't about the freedom of the slaves as much as it was about disrupting the foreign support of the Confederate states and increasing the number of Union soldiers. So whether it was Jan. 1, 1863, or June 19, 1865, we still weren't free. We might have been called "free," but that freedom still had shackles placed on us by those in power.
What do I mean? Well, the 13th Amendment which gave us our "freedom" took a year to ratify, and even after its ratification while it freed us, it didn't give us citizenship. That took the 14th Amendment and another three years to ratify. Which means even though we were "free," we weren't seen as worthy to have citizenship in the United States, though we built the cities, designed the infrastructure and created the patents for many of the conveniences used by our oppressors, and we weren't seen as worthy of citizenship. Even after the ratification of Amendments 13 and 14, it wasn't until the 15th Amendment that we were given the right to vote, again taking a year or more to ratify. So they gave us citizenship but didn't think we were capable of making a contribution toward choosing the leadership for this country. So though we were "free," we still didn't experience real "freedom." There were Black codes, Jim Crow, segregation, Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, Plessey vs. Ferguson, all reminders that this country never desired for us to be free or equal.
Fast forward to today, as we prepare for July 4, 2020, and not much has changed as evidenced by the pandemic of racism and COVID-19. The freedoms we experience are the freedoms we fight for and protest for, never the freedoms just simply handed to us because we deserve them, because we are seen as worthy and equal. No, these freedoms come at the cost of learning to litigate the law, learning the language of the oppressor, but it can't stop with simply the solving of the symptoms. What do I mean? Well, pulling down a statue is great, but when are the governors going to review their state's laws to revoke and reverse the "Black Laws" on the books that directly castigate African-Americans? It's great for Starbucks to allow employees to wear Black Lives Matter shirts, but when is the corporation going to create incentives for more African-American and minority franchise owners or include more persons of color on its board of directors? It's great for ViacomCBS to host the BET Awards (also owned by ViacomCBS) on primetime television because it costs them nothing, but when are they going to hire more African-American primetime writers, directors and actors? It's great for Netflix to invest $100 million in Black-owned banks, for it makes them look good and still earns them money, but when are they going to invest those same $100 million into young African-American playwrights, scholarships to film school for African-Americans or seeding more African-American studios and production companies?
I know I should be talking about reconciliation, but the word is defined as "the restoration of friendly relations," and the reality is we can't reconcile something that never was. The other definition is "the action of making one view or belief compatible with one another." This has been the problem the whole time, for we have been forced to buy into the belief that the oppressor has wanted what's best for us, that "Master" really wants us to be free. It has us seeking their approval, showing up to their table, waiting for their support. But does that make sense? How can our oppressor who benefits from us being oppressed actually want us to be free?
So on this 4th of July holiday, as many will flock to buy fireworks and meat to grill out by the pool, for many of us this day of celebration has nothing to do with the country, the forefathers or the Declaration of Independence! This is a day of praise to a God who kept us in spite of the enemies' and oppressors' attempt to keep us in bondage and to keep us enslaved. For every 4th of July, I am reminded of a God who would not allow slave traders and slave owners, racists or racism to control the narrative of my people. I am the great-grandson of Aaron Abrams, born in 1861, a slave, but three generations later, I am a free educated, informed and independent thinking African-American man walking in the declaration, not of independence, but of Joseph stated in Genesis 50:20, "you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive." I am the dream of my foreparents, the nightmare of my oppressors and the fulfillment of God's perfect will!
Napoleon A. Bradford, D.Min., is the lead shepherd of The L.I.F.E. Center: A Cyber Community of CHRIST Followers.
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