What to the African American is the
Fourth of July?

By Lester Enoch

Mon June 22, 2020

Editor's Note: This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

(Diversity Spotlight) – On July fourth, our country celebrates Independence Day. But after more than 400 years since the first slaves were brought to America, what does Independence Day mean to African Americans today? We are all living in unprecedented times and this year I simply cannot ignore the correlation between the meaning of Independence Day, past and present. The Declaration of Independence states the principles on which our government, and our identity as Americans, are based. In addition, the Declaration of Independence is not legally binding like other founding documents, yet it is a powerful and inspiring document. The preamble to the declaration states, “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.”

This Independence Day I am reminded of July 5, 1852, when Frederick Douglass (an escaped slave, diplomat, and leader in the abolitionist movement) gave a keynote address at an Independence Day celebration in Rochester, New York and asked his audience, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"

Mr. Douglass even pondered why he was asked to speak about Independence Day, to which he stated, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today? Am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?" Frederick Douglass and the slaves he represented struggled with the notion that they were expected to express gratitude to a country that kept black people in bondage.

I believe we must cling to hope now more than ever, because when hope is lost, all is lost. And although many African Americans have made progress within our country, recent events such as the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, continue to serve as a painful reminder that this progress was not achieved without great sacrifice and loss of life.

So today I ask you, what to the African American is the Fourth of July?

Our Founding Fathers and signers of the Declaration of Independence were commitment to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" for all Americans, and yet today our country has failed to hear the grievances of African Americans – the very same grievances that our Founding Fathers expressed to King George III. Are African Americans still expected to express gratitude or pretend to, as they continue to experience racism that has now taken a toll for which they can no longer bear alone? And why must African Americans continue to fight for justice and equality when our country has already declared it?  

African Americans live a sad reality, that no matter how hard you work, no matter how hard you try, a country in which racism exist will never result in justice and equality for all. How can racism exist within the systems of our country when we have a documented history, and research to validate and identify the disparities between black and white America? The answer is simple, our country refuses to confront it even when presented with proof of its existence. As a matter of fact, many will deny it even exist. Yet, the result of this refusal and denial continues to manifest in the form of mass incarceration, poor housing and education, unemployment, lack of quality healthcare, police brutality, and more – leading to civil unrest, civil movements, and civil disobedience that has now become part of the black experience. And as time marches forward, the story remains relevant. Why? Because the story remains the same. So how does black America feel about Independence Day? Mr. Douglass said it best, “I say it 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 disparity that Mr. Douglass speaks of is the result of racism – a vicious infection that replicates universally within society. I believe systemic racism creates its greatest disparity within our education system. Education has a direct impact on one’s ability to thrive and has been the foundation of success for African Americans throughout history. However, reform would represent a threat to those who fear progress, change, inclusion, and an educated person of color. And even when African Americans overcome this barrier, they are still faced with systemic racism within other areas of our society.

African Americans want to contribute, and feel included in our great celebrations. But the sins of our country which continue to exist, cause us to pause and question our participation in celebration of Independence Day, joyous anthems, and even service to country. This is a problem that continues to divide our country, leaving me with a profound sense of sadness. Like all of you, the world now bears witness to the hypocrisy of our nation. How can we show others a vision for equality, when we fail to demonstrate leadership that inspires others to follow a cause in which everyone benefits?

I believe if Frederick Douglass were here today, he would conclude as he did in 1852 that,
"This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn."

Lester Enoch is the founder of DiversitySpotlight.com, a senior diversity consultant within the Department of Defense, and a retired member of the U.S. Air Force.


About Diversity Spotlight: Diversity Spotlight is a community-based media website located just outside of our Nation's Capital. We were founded in 2006 by a member of the U.S. Air Force, whose intent was to use the site within the military community. Today, Diversity Spotlight reaches a much broader audience by using social media to help drive the conversation.


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