This being 2020, Fourth of July just didn’t feel like the Fourth of July. For one, a Juneteenth like no other (except, perhaps, the first one in 1865) had come and gone, with many Blacks calling that celebration last month our very own Freedom Day (thus blunting the impact of this year’s Fourth of July celebration) and, surprisingly, many whites, some perhaps with a shrug and side-eye, saying, “Well, we’re OK with that.”
This Fourth of July had announced itself for months in the form of booms and blasts and shrieks that we’ve been hearing in neighborhood blocks across the nation. For many of us, I suspect, whatever anticipation of Fourth of July fireworks we had were completely zapped from our being. We’d have preferred a complete cessation of outdoor sound over a glorious pyrotechnic display. Besides, these last six months have been one overlong, exasperating, painful, glitch-filled pyrotechnics display of Trumpian proportions.
Not even our sacrosanct Black family cookouts felt the same as they did just a year ago — caught as they were between coronavirus and Karens.
So given the present reality, what to Black folk was this year’s Fourth of July? What to do without a proper cookout and fireworks and old-fashioned, American fun (you know, the kind we had in the olden days of the Fourth, which, like virtually all of our holidays, is more celebrated for what it is not — a day spent at work or dreading going into work — than for what it symbolizes)?
And speaking of those symbols. They, too, were not what they were. The very meaning of this momentous day was up for debate. In the spirit of the moment, in the spirit of both George Floyd and George Washington, here are five suggestions I offered last week for making the most of this year’s quarantined commemoration.
Yes, the Fourth of July is now over, but you may still find these recommendations edifying.
Read the excerpt of poet Claudia Rankine’s 2014 volume of poems “Citizen: An American Lyric” that is available at poetryfoundation.org (the excerpted poem is titled: (“You are in the dark, in the car”). This year, we’re witnessing the elastic concept of citizenship evolve and morph as Blacks make new demands for recognition and basic rights, but this very public debate about who is and is not a citizen of this country cannot be divorced from the minute injustices of everyday racism, Rankine’s poems so powerfully demonstrate.
Now, perhaps more than ever before, whites en masse are re-examining their assumptions about Black people and our place in American history — which is squarely at the center. There can be no understating racism’s centrality to the founding of this country and if you need very carefully deconstructed proof of this point, you can’t do much better than watch Jeffery Robinson, the “ACLU’s top racial justice expert,” talk about the “dark history of Confederate symbols across the country and outlines what we can do to learn from our past and combat systemic racism.” Search: “The Truth About the Confederacy in America” on YouTube.
You may have heard about Frederick Douglass’ “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” one of his most famous speeches. It is one thing to read the words, as powerful as they are. It is another to hear them recited by James Earl Jones. I recommend doing both. Search: “James Earl Jones and What to the Slave” (or some variation of the phrase) on YouTube.
Since it hit the newsstands last year, the special issue of the New York Times Magazine, called the 1619 Project, has prompted continued debate about the centrality of race in American life and how it came to be so central to this country’s founding myths. But the 1619 Project is more than a print issue. It is an expansive, immersive interactive project that you can explore immediately at: nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html.
Finally, read the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution (if only snippets of each). We Black folk are, along with our white and Brown sisters and brothers, stitched into a fabric of mutuality that is defined, in large part, by those documents, which every one of us has a right to interpret and define for ourselves. For a long time, only the interpretations and definitions of a select few citizens have mattered. I think that’s changing now. And because of that, this Fourth of July, despite its epic challenges, may have been among the most important that we’ve had in a long time. And that’s a good thing for all of us.