Independence Day Isn’t Cause for Celebration for Black Americans

Demonstrators at a recent Black Lives Matter protest in East Oakland.  (Brandon Ruffin)

It’s odd, the relationship America has with its history. There is this unbudging death grip on the moments that flatter this nation and selective amnesia when it comes to moments that are dark and shameful.

We throw fits over statues of slave owners and colonizers being pulled down—statues that were erected as reminders of white supremacy during moments of heightened racial tension, such as the Reconstruction, Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights movement. Yet we don’t think twice about the fact that tragedies like the Tulsa race massacre aren’t taught in American history at any level of K-12 education.

I am infuriated that I didn’t read the words of great minds like James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois or Angela Davis until I was in my 30s—figures who refused to whitewash or sanitize the conversation around race and inequality in America. 

When historical wounds are never mended, the rot of hate is allowed to fester and spread into other vital parts of the body. Wounds don’t heal unless they are properly diagnosed and tended to. If you take one look at the protests across the nation, you can see the wounded. 

Demonstrators at a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Oakland in June 2020. (Brandon Ruffin)

As the country prepares to celebrate the Fourth of July, I can’t help but think of the words Frederick Douglass spoke on July 5, 1852 in Rochester, New York.

I say with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me.The Fourth of July is yours, not mine, You may rejoice, I must mourn.

Ten years after Douglass gave his speech, nearly 3.5 million enslaved Black people would be given the status of “free”—that was nearly 100 years after the 13 American colonies seceded from King George III’s United Kingdom. 

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Challenging the hypocrisy of celebrating Independence Day isn’t new, but unfortunately it is still very relevant. Today, people aren’t just out protesting the unjust deaths of Black people at the hands of police, they are protesting the many disparities Black communities face. 

Disparities in wages, the justice system, loans, housing, education and access to medical care all continue to plague Black communities. And this year, we watched a global pandemic ravage them all over the United States. 

So, examining the past and the present of this country, was there ever an Independence Day when Black Americans truly felt included or proud? 

Were Black Americans expected to celebrate Independence Day in 1919, during the “Red Summer”? That year, the Elaine Massacre in Arkansas led to the deaths of nearly 300 Black Americans, including World War I veteran Leroy Johnston. Johnston was critically wounded in France, only to come home and be shot to death alongside his brothers by a white mob. It took over 90 years for Johnston to receive his Purple Heart earned in service to a country that barely recognized his citizenship. Even as he fought under the flag we wave on Independence Day, Johnston was not afforded the basic right to life.

Demonstrators at a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Oakland in June 2020. (Brandon Ruffin)

Were Black Americans expected to celebrate in 1896–1965, when the Jim Crow laws undermined their citizenship and voting rights?

Were Black Americans expected to celebrate in 1921, after the Tulsa race massacre? White mobs murdered men, women and children, using land and air attacks that leveled a 35-block district known as “Black Wall Street.” 

Were Black Americans expected to celebrate in 1965, when Jimmie Lee Jackson was gunned down by a white police officer during a non-violent voting rights protest in Selma? 

Were Black Americans expected to celebrate in 1998? I remember being terrified in the weeks leading up to Independence Day as I drove with my parents through Jasper, Texas on a trip to visit family in Louisiana. On June 7, just two weeks before we drove through the sleepy, Southern town, every major news network reported that three white men tied a Black man named James Byrd Jr. to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him for miles until his body tore into pieces. I never forgot the chalk circles on the roadway that investigators drew to identify the location of his head, torso, arms and legs. Was I supposed to scarf down hot dogs, pop firecrackers and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” that year?

Once again, this year’s Independence Day feels heavy for Black Americans. Just over a month ago, I watched a video of George Floyd murdered in the streets of Minneapolis as police officer Derek Chauvin jabbed his knee into his neck, stripping him of his dignity. For nearly nine minutes, I watched Chauvin kneel on Floyd’s neck like a hunter standing over a trophy bear.  

Just a little over a week ago, I watched the president of the United States retweet and praise a video of a protest where a man chanted the phrase “white power.” 

How enthusiastic about Independence Day should my family and I be?  

Murals in downtown Oakland call for justice for victims of police violence. (Brandon Ruffin)

Once you understand American history in all of its cruelty, it’s easy to see why people want to pull down statues of so-called great Americans like Confederate general Albert Pike, who had strong ties to the KKK, and Confederate general Robert E. Lee, who was a slave owner. These monuments are a sham; they are a physical manifestation of gaslighting about the origins of this nation. These images, these flags, these great Americans—they are all coded language from those who have power and status to maintain. 

For the rest of us, American history is made up of horror stories, and people are tired of the reminders. People have naturally grown weary to tipping their hats to falsehood. People have grown tired of begging for immovable governments to move on their behalf.

This year, we should look at Independence Day as more than a day to barbecue and drink, more than a day to light fireworks and jump in pools. I suggest that this year we take a look at ourselves, take a look at our country and celebrate it for what it is and recognize its failures.

History is not the death of time but the continuous sequence of life. The injuries endured will sustain the injured as a testament to their strength and resilience.

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Brandon Ruffin is an Oakland photographer, writer and visual artist.