Why Are We Celebrating The 4th Of July When Not Everyone Is Free?

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Why Are We Celebrating The 4th Of July When Not Everyone Is Free?
Justin Helmick/Reshot

It’s that time of the year when hot dogs and beer go on sale, firework stands pop up along the side of the road, and red, white, and blue décor is everywhere. But this year, more than ever before, I’m not feeling “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Celebrating a holiday that honors the liberties of only some people feels wrong.

There are multiple holidays we take issue with as a multiracial family. We also wonder why other holidays aren’t being taught in schools and celebrated nationally. It’s about time the national holiday calendar (and the history books) get an epic makeover. It’s 2020, and I’m sick of the racism and white-washed history and symbols disguised as patriotism. Isn’t it time we re-think holidays and historical symbols that pledge allegiance to whiteness and replace them with more comprehensive celebrations?

Take, for example, Memorial Day. According to multiple sources, “some records show that one of the earliest Memorial Day commemoration was organized by a group of freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered in 1865.” Yet who gets credit for Memorial Day? You won’t be surprised that credit is almost always given to General John A. Logan.

Did you learn about Juneteenth in school? Neither did I. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t learn about Juneteenth until I became a mom to Black children almost twelve years ago. Juneteenth, named for June Nineteenth, commemorates the day “federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas in 1865 to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people be freed.” This is particularly epic because the troops arrived over two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth is considered the longest-running Black American holiday.

Let’s talk about Columbus Day. I remember learning a cutesy rhyme in school that went something like this. “In the year of 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” How picturesque, right? Sounds like a Disney movie. Research taught me that the history-book revered Columbus was a colonizer, a suspected rapist, and an enslaver. The Columbian Exchange brought smallpox, among other diseases, that killed millions of Native Americans. Yet, we honor him with a national holiday, closing our schools and workplaces? Stores have Columbus Day sales, offering discounted merchandise.

No, just no. I am happy that the Columbus statue here in St. Louis was removed from a popular park, but we need to keep the momentum going. We need to tell kids who Columbus really was and stop crediting him with discovering already-inhabited lands. White men aren’t the damn saviors in every story—and in fact, they are quite often the villains.

Why aren’t we celebrating and honoring Loving Day? Loving v. Virginia was the case of Mildred and Richard loving, a Black woman and white man, whose marriage was determined to be illegal by Virginia’s state law. On June 12, 1967, the United States Supreme Court ruled that banning interracial marriage violated the 14th amendment. Every year since that epic day, every year interracial couples across the United States celebrate the Loving family and the landmark case.

Let’s get back to the beloved 4th of July. I get that on one hand, we make it our own, right? Firecrackers and swimming and bags of chips—they’re all lovely. Kids love to catch fireflies while the adults take care of grilling burgers. I’m not against a good-time gathering between family and friends. But I can’t help but think of how the saying goes, that it’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt. People are getting hurt in our country, particularly Black people. So why are we collectively celebrating a holiday that isn’t truly all-American, but instead, for the privileged?

What is the fourth, really? Frederick Douglass famously explored this in his speech What to the Slave is the Fourth of July, shared on July 5, 1852. He said, “To him your celebration is a sham…your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mock…” He later added, “For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder…The…conscience of the nation must be roused…the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be denounced.”

We love to pretend that slavery was so long ago, as was the time when Jim Crow laws governed. When President Obama was elected, I recall numerous white people saying how “post racial” our society was. But the reality is, these weren’t that long ago, and we still have a lot of progress to make. When I think about the freedoms my friends’ white children have, and the freedoms my children have, they are not the same. When I see white Americans pledging allegiance to flags, a president, and “all lives matter,” while we await justice for Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, I remember Douglass’ words. When will the “conscience of the nation” become “roused” and the “hypocrisy of the nation” be “exposed”? When will racism—in all forms—be “denounced”? And not just in words, but in actions that create change?

I’m thankful for progress. I’m in the camp that statues bidding honor to enslavers and colonizers (and in general, all around asshats) should come tumbling down. And those Confederate flags need to go—and not just at the Nascar racetrack. There’s no reason to pay homage to symbols of racism disguised as southern pride. Nobody is falling for that anymore–except racists.

I’m also not advocating that we alter or forget history, but it is time that we tell the whole story. History is our teacher. If we don’t want to repeat it, we need to learn from it. However, that doesn’t mean that we need to worship racists as the heroes that they weren’t or vow to be loyal to a country over the people within it.

Don’t tweet me about MLK Day and think that’s enough. It’s not. Don’t clapback that there’s Black History Month, either. Black history is American history that matters every day of every month of every year, not just twenty-eight days in February. My kids are Black 24/7/365, and their lives, their history, and their culture matter all the time.

It’s time that we listen and apply the wise words of Maya Angelou. We know better, so now it’s time to do better. There needs to be systemic change, including national recognition that what we once held up in high regard isn’t for all. Ditching whitewashed history and holidays is one way we can, as a nation, work to be more anti-racist. I truly believe that every little bit helps.

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