Black Lives and the Fourth of July

Black Lives and the Fourth of July

After Juneteenth, it’s hard to overlook the hollowness of American freedom.


On June 19, 1865, the news of emancipation finally reached Galveston, Texas. On that day, the crack of the master’s whip would no longer be sanctioned by the laws of the United States. Exercising the powers vested in him by President Lincoln, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, along with more than 1,800 federal troops, marched into Galveston to announce General Order Number 3. Addressed to the “The people of Texas,” the order set out Granger’s task: to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.

It was nearly two months after the end of the Civil War when freedom for the remaining enslaved persons in the deepest parts of the South, and the United States more generally, was confirmed. In plain language, the General read the order to the now freed population:

In accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

Thus, a full two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, freedom for African Americans in the farthest corners of the American slave empire was conferred on the approximately 250,000 enslaved men, women and children in Texas who had been unaware of their already existing freedom. Six months later, in December of 1865, the 13th Amendment was ratified. Juneteenth is reasonably one of the most important, if not the most significant, dates in the American calendar for African Americans.

But shortly following it on the calendar is its counterpart. Thirteen years before the first Juneteenth, Frederick Douglass delivered his famous oration, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July.” The speech proved remarkably prescient, lamenting the impossibility of freedom before Emancipation. The Fourth of July was primarily a white people’s birthday. “The freedom gained is yours; and you, therefore, may properly celebrate this anniversary,” he said. “The Fourth of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history.”

“Oppression,” said Douglass, quoting from Ecclesiastes, “makes a wise man mad.” And for this reason, he understood the significance of the Fourth of July for European Americans. The founding fathers, he argued, were wise men for rebelling and overthrowing the yoke of British colonization, and “if they did not go mad, they became restive under this treatment.” In 2020, after Black Americans have commemorated the 155th Juneteenth, it bears remarking that the nation’s continued degradation of Black humanity has driven Black America mad enough to ignite yet again another rebellion. In its wake, the Fourth of July arrives with an indignity that, to some, may have hitherto gone unnoticed.

The rebellion began on another national holiday: Memorial Day, May 25. As thousands of Black Americans are dying from Covid-19, the police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, an unarmed 46-year-old African American man. The ensuing national uprising in response to his brutal murder has generated great gestures of multiracial solidarity. Even the whitest states in the country, including Montana, Idaho, Vermont, and Maine, have seen thousands of concerned Americans protesting. From Minneapolis to New York, from Boston to Berlin, from Chicago to Paris, and from Los Angeles to London, one thing is clear: We are confronted with a time of calls for transformative changes. Across the United States, the city streets have filled with young, multiracial crowds in what has become the largest uprising since the Los Angeles riots of 1992.

In one of its more symbolic shows of force yet, the rebellion has offended the racist sensibilities of President Donald Trump, who threatened to unleash the slavery-era Insurrection Act of 1807. It is fitting that the president should invoke his powers to suppress what he believes is an insurrectionary force. As the late historian Ira Berlin argued, the long history of the Black freedom struggle against white supremacy was, at every turn, a bloody effort against the tradition of anti-Black violence. “Slavery everywhere had begun in violence, rested on violence, and nearly always ended in violence,” he wrote in The Long Emancipation.

As Douglass remarked, on that July 4, the hypocrisy of American racism was ritualized into a national holiday. Year after year, African Americans were invited to the “grand illuminated temple of liberty,” and called to join in joyous anthems of freedom that served to remind them of the “sad sense of the disparity between us.” The majority of white Americans ignored the fact of the “inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony” encoded in the symbolism of the Fourth of July for Black Americans. “Above your national, tumultuous joy,” said Douglass, “I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.” For without systemic slavery, the invention of the United States would have almost been unthinkable.

Before the Civil War, the general popular opinion of white Americans agreed with the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision, marking Black people as “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations.” Black people, the court argued, “are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.” For the court, this logic was an axiom of American nationalism.

A few years after this opinion was announced, Douglass noted that the United States failed to uphold its promise, because “the Declaration of Independence had been found impracticable; the Constitution had been found impracticable.” This impracticability pointed to the founding fathers, whom the Court credited with having created a national body in which Black men and women “were not intended to be embraced in this new political family which the Constitution brought into existence, but were intended to be excluded from it.” In other words, the protections, immunities and privileges of US citizenship, per the Court’s historical reading, were designated by and for white people.

The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was the first step toward reimagining American democracy from its otherwise white supremacist order. Lincoln declared that “all persons held as slaves” within the Confederate states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” In the decade that followed, Radical Republicans tried to delineate the basic human rights of African Americans by first replacing the lash with contractual relations, and severing the master’s authority over the working lives of Black people. Nevertheless, beyond de jure freedom, one question remained: Were Black men and women entitled to citizenship? One congressman, John Henderson of Mississippi, argued against anything more than emancipation. “In passing this amendment we do not confer upon the negro the right to vote,” he said. “We give him no right except his freedom, and leave the rest to the States.” This fateful decision reflected the consensus of the political view of the majority of white Americans, North and South.

The economic experience of African Americans proves the adage that wealth is never destroyed, it is merely transformed or redistributed. Indeed, the redistributive transfer of wealth extracted from Black bodies and deposited onto white coffers is the transnational story of people of African descent in the Americas. When slavery ended in the British Caribbean in 1833, the United Kingdom distributed £20 million to slaveholders as compensation. The British were merely following the example of France, who leveled an indemnity of 25 million francs against Haiti in 1825 as punitive reparations against Africans for overthrowing French slavocracy. In the United States, the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act, which ended slavery in the nation’s capital in 1862, paid slaveholders up to $300 for each enslaved person they manumitted. In the same vein, freed persons and their families were offered $100, consistent with a colonization plan by the federal government to facilitate sea passage to Haiti or Liberia in order to encourage self-exile to other lands.

In the end, the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act freed some 3,000 enslaved persons, but not under the conditions of their own making. Hence, the first federal statute to abolish slavery as an institution just as immediately moved to affirm the denigration of Black life, in conceding that masters possessed property claims on the human lives they had held in captivity for generations. In all three cases, masters were rewarded handsomely with reparative compensations. The wealth that was created by Black labor, and for which Black lives were exploited by capital extraction, trickled upward to masters while leaving the victims of slavery’s capitalism with no restorative recourse for recuperating the incalculable sums of wealth production. To this day, the global descendants of the enslaved received nothing.

“Heretofore the negro had been regarded only as the means of putting money in the white man’s pocket, like a bale of cotton,” said Douglass. By one calculation, the estimated value of the unpaid labor performed by enslaved African Americans from 1619 to 1865, compounded at 6 percent interest through 2016, is $150,735,000,000,000. This gargantuan number suggests the execution of reparative justice in the form of a nationwide financial reparations would far exceed the capacity of the nation to pay. One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, a quarter of people of African descent live in poverty. Freedom in the 21st century is underscored by a median wealth of $142,000 per white family and $11,000 for Black families. These facts accentuate the shortcoming of the historical legacy of Union victory: that the abolition of slavery did not sever white supremacy from the fundamental core of American political economy.

The culmination of the antislavery struggle came into fruition through the gains of the Reconstruction Amendments—the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, which granted African Americans birthright citizenship, suffrage, and protection under the law. Black men and women, as one Radical Republican put it, would have had “the right to till the soil, to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow, and to enjoy the rewards of his labor.” However, between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the dawn of the 20th century, the retrenchment of Black economic citizenship was well underway.

As former slaves left their conditions of servitude behind, they entered a world of hollow and partial freedoms, where the true prospect for succeeding outside of slavery was not so much augmented by the ballot box as it was undermined by deprivation of the basic necessities of life—food, public health, shelter—and, most important of all, land. A former slave from South Carolina, James Johnson, shed light on this reality when he remarked, “I feels and knows dat de years after de war was worser than befo.” Not only was the nation unprepared to deal with the challenges posed by the new citizenship bestowed on the freedmen and -women, in the words of one ex-slave, Houston Hartsfield Holloway, it disregarded their circumstances: “For we colored people did not know how to be free and the white people did not know how to have a free colored person about them.” As far as the freedmen and -women were concerned, perhaps the most urgent questions were not whether to be free and independent but what kind of freedom and under what conditions.

Centuries of the political economy of slavery gave way to the structural violence of institutionalized racism as an American way of life. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed, almost a century after emancipation, “The American Negro finds himself living in a triple ghetto. A ghetto of race, a ghetto of poverty, a ghetto of human misery.” Unlike slavery, which contained overt systems of economic, social and political exploitation, a ghettoized freedom is a more elusive and covert concept. It hides oppressive conditions in spite of legal guarantees.

In a sense, descendants of enslaved Americans have always known that political emancipation without economic decency was an empty promise. That is why King insisted on the contradistinction between two Americas, one white and one Black. The former was a society “overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity.” As for the latter, it was but an “island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” In essence, as King noted, it has historically been easier to guarantee freedom without equal citizenship:

It’s more difficult today because we are struggling now for genuine equality. It’s much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job. It’s much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality.

Was the absence of slavery itself freedom? The promise of the June 19 proclamation that freedom meant, in part, “an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves” remains unfulfilled.

If, as W.E.B Du Bois lamented in 1903, the problem of the 20th century was the problem of the color line, then the mid-century rise of the new Black middle class blurred the lines along the axis of political economy. For what it’s worth, blurred lines often denote mirages. Today’s racialized socioeconomic structures mask an effort to speed up neoliberal multiculturalism without gauging the past for what it is. Meanwhile, racial injustices continue to permeate the civic and political fabric of American life. Here, then, is the problem of the 21st century: the smokescreen of diversity and progress in so-called “race relations” in a political economy that was never, in fact, severed from racism.

In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton dog-whistled to various cadres of white Americans that he could assuage their racial anxieties by “ending welfare as we know it.” In other words, he pulled the rug from under Black families whose heads of household had been vilified as welfare queens, just after he had taken their votes. He added insult to injury when he adapted draconian sentencing laws that further emboldened state-sponsored police brutality. Taken from their homes, incarcerated Black men disappeared at alarming rates, which created hollow communities where a million African American men became missing fathers, brothers, and sons in absentia. The logical conclusion of those policies was clear from the outset: economic, political, and social capital disfranchisement. But their full consequences would not be heard or seen until Black Lives Matter, the movement founded in 2013 by three Black women, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi, articulated that pain, frustration, and anger precisely. Ironically, it finally took place during the moment that an African American president occupied the Executive Office.

In spite of several movements for civil rights in the past century, we find ourselves back where we started: people of African descent continue to insist on the inherent humanity of Black lives while remaining squeezed between a self-serving narrative of liberal multiculturalism and an emerging white nationalist movement. Ever since Reconstruction, African American pursuits of civil rights have been fixed in the endeavors—legal, political, and economic—to achieve what is seemingly and ideologically American, but increasingly unattainable: that is, to abolish the racialized economic construction of Blackness from African American humanity and citizenship.

For the Black community, the anger and bitterness at the unrestrained police violence, racist abuse, and racially motivated murder have tested their patience, not least because the same words spoken by Douglass on July 4, 1852, still ring true on July 4, 2020:

The character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.

This year, an American majority felt the promise of Juneteenth for the first time. Perhaps it will be forced to discover the travesty of Independence Day, too.

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