Observing American Independence Day in the Age of Obama: A Critique
African Americans have always been conflicted with the 4th of July celebration. Barack Obama, first black president of the United States, noted in his “A More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia, March 2008: Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words: “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union,” launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy.
Yet, as Obama goes on to point out, “The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery… the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution – a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.”
Elegant words of liberty and equality, Obama stated were not enough to bring about a more perfect union. It was protest and struggle:
And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk – to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.
Martin Luther King, in his historic “I Have A Dream” speech grounds his vision in the Declaration of Independence: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” By 1968, King’s dream had been deferred and he was left to wonder as Langston Hughes had: What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore and then run. Or does it explode? The answer came in 965. Watts exploded and with it King’s dream. In a sermon to his congregation in 1968, Martin Luther King questioned whether blacks would be able to celebrate the Bicentennial. “You know why,” King asked? “Because It [Declaration of Independence] has never had any real meaning in terms of implementation in our lives.”
Frederick Douglass, the preeminent African American abolitionist offered the harshest and most serve criticism of the observance of American Independence Day. On July 5th, 1852, Frederick Douglass, one of the greatest orators of al time, delivered what was arguably the century’s most powerful abolition speech. At a time of the year when American freedom is celebrated across the nation, Douglass eloquently summoned the nation to resolve the contradiction between slavery and the founding principles of America.
Giving a voice t the voiceless, Douglass asked a crowd who had gathered to celebrate the Independence Day and who invited him to deliver an address for this occasion: “What, to the American slave is your Forth of July?” Douglass answered:
In light of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the dehumanization of legal and illegal immigrants, the treatment of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, the trashing of American workers, in particular those unemployed, the mass incarceration of black males, the mean spiritedness directed at the poor, the disrespect of women and the denigration of black women, Frederick Douglass’ 4th of July address merits revisiting. Even in the age of Obama, which had so much promise, the American Independence Day may very well be too weighed down with contradictions and hypocrisy to merit sacred and patriotic observance and zeal. Obama is correct; America is a work in progress-still trying to achieve “A More Perfect Union.” Hence, celebrate the forward progress America has made in achieving liberty and equality for its citizens. But, do not confuse this forward progress with perfection-the American experiment is still a work in progress.