On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass, an orator and abolitionist who escaped enslavement at age 20, gave a speech at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Rochester, New York titled, “The Meaning of July Fourth to the Negro.” In the speech he asked “What, to a slave, is the 4th of July?” He also went on to say, "This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn." While he wrote this more than a hundred and sixty years ago when chattel slavery was still the law of the land, these words felt achingly salient to me as a Black man living in a country where oppression of Black people persists. I didn’t start here, but after crossing many rivers, my evolution brought me from Independence to Emancipation Day.
As a young boy I really enjoyed the parades, cookouts, and the fireworks (especially the fireworks) that accompanied the 4th of July celebrations. Some of my happiest childhood memories involved traveling with my family to watch the various displays around the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut areas. By the time I was a teenager, however, I had heard enough conflicting information about this country’s founding and its architects to know that early American history was much more complicated than I was taught in school and learned on Schoolhouse Rock! And as I became a young man, I started to feel that I was celebrating something that was not truly, authentically mine. This feeling, coupled with personally experiencing racism and discrimination in ways I could tacitly identify, forced me to reexamine my personal cosmology. I realized that I no longer fit as neatly into the American landscape as I thought I did.
It was hard to scrutinize the significance of Independence Day in my parents’ home because my father is a military veteran and my mother is an immigrant, so it was almost as sacrosanct as Christmas and Easter. This was why it took going away to college for my journey towards unlearning to proceed. I read books, heard lectures, and had many enlightening conversations that provided powerful counter-narratives to what I learned from kindergarten to 12th grade. During this period I questioned many things and started systematically dismantling long-held thoughts, beliefs, and practices that were contrary to my evolving value system. One of those practices was to no longer observe Independence Day, as I had come to believe this was just not a legitimate holiday for Black people. I acted as if July 4th was the same as the 3rd or the 5th. Disengaging was difficult at first, though it eventually became easier as I grew more comfortable with swimming upstream and eschewing things that didn’t represent who I wanted to become.
During my studies, I learned about Juneteenth, which originated in Texas in on June 19th, 1865, when enslaved Black people there were finally told they were free over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the Civil War had ended. This day, also known as Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, Jubilee Day in other regions, has been referred to as Black people’s Independence Day. Texas made it a state holiday in 1980, and many Black communities around the country and world have been celebrating it for years, even decades. Yet somehow I had never been to a Juneteenth, or any other type of liberation event until I relocated to Washington D.C. in the early 2000s, where I learned that DC had its very own Emancipation Day, celebrated on April 16th. I attended events and ceremonies at such places as Howard University, the African American Civil War Memorial Museum, and Frederick Douglass Historic Home. These events had a profound effect on me, and I developed a greater appreciation of the strength and resilience of Black people who were not passively waiting for their freedom, but literally fought for it; they actively and continuously pushed against the system, and compelled this country to do what it needed to do.
Today, I observe Juneteenth and Emancipation Day and appreciate them in ways I never could for Independence Day. However, I do not celebrate the declarations of freedom issued by white people, considering they were also responsible for the enslavement. I recognize these holidays by remembering the millions of my people who were born, lived, and died under this horrific system. For those who survived to see freedom, I marvel at their courage while facing such tremendous hardships attempting to rebuild their lives in a country and government that gave them very little, but remunerated their former enslavers. I think about their children and grandchildren who moved to places like Tulsa, OK, and reflect on how amazing and inspiring it must have been to have lived in such vibrant communities, and how utterly devastating it was to see those communities destroyed by white mob and state-sanctioned violence during attacks like the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, among others. Then I recall the hundred years since, with all the suffering and misery, as well as the triumphs and progress. I wonder just how far we are from realizing the true emancipation I imagine my ancestors rejoiced about for that first Juneteenth day. Above all, I observe these holidays with hope, by looking forward to waking up the next day to continue building the kind of country they deserved.
Click here to see more about Robert's work at Audubon on Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging.