For those who consider themselves woke citizens, Independence Day gives us pause. Instead of automatically celebrating the awesomeness of that day, it is a time of reflection on the long and difficult history of race. To be sure, there was freedom for some, but not for all living in America in 1776. As an activist historian who lives in Harlem and teaches college in Connecticut, that fact leads to the valid question: can those in my very liberal circle of friends and students also celebrate that day?
The masterful speech by Frederick Douglass asks a variation of that question, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July, which was delivered to the Rochester, New York Ladies Anti-Slavery Society on July 5, 1852. The choice of the day was deliberate and fully communicated it was not a day of celebration for enslaved people. Douglass’ speech, along with the entire abolitionist movement, proclaimed that the business of creating a free American society was unfinished.
Slavery was the law of the land on the first Independence Day. It is also important to note that it existed in both the north and south in 1776. New York State, for example, passed the Gradual Emancipation Act in 1799 that freed children born after July 4th of that year but kept them in indentured servitude until adulthood. Slavery was finally abolished in New York with the passage of an 1817 law that gave freedom to all enslaved people by 1827.
The Civil War represents the final push to end slavery in America. In addition, it has come into the popular consciousness that Abraham Lincoln’s reputation as the Great Emancipator is bit more complicated. The Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 abolished slavery in the states that seceded from the north. The border states of Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri still had legalized slavery throughout the war. The Proclamation was nevertheless important because it changed the stated purpose of the war from one to preserve the union to one that ended slavery.
Nearly 100 years after the first Independence Day, we corrected the Great Wrong of slavery. As a historian who considers herself unapologetically woke, I have concluded that it is a day both too late and right on time. American history contains a dystopian tale of the highest and heartbreaking caliber: a country founded on the self-evident truth that all men are created equal contained a population of enslaved people. Yet that truth will out. The Declaration of Independence contained the idea that was realized eventually, with much sacrifice and suffering by millions of people.
Thus, Juneteenth is a day in Harlem and many other communities to celebrate that long overdue victory. The Union army arrived in Galveston, Texas and informed the population that the war had ended and enslaved people were free on June 19, 1865. Juneteenth occurred during the push to adopt the amendment in the House of Representatives, Senate, and the state legislatures. With the ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865, legal slavery was formally abolished throughout the land.
There is often a misperception that fighting for racial equality is a dour undertaking. From the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s celebrations of a beloved community in the 1960s to the energy of the Black Lives Matter movement today, there is an undeniable vitality contained in the long struggle for civil rights. There must also be times like Juneteenth when we can acknowledge both the victories and the battles still ahead. I enjoy the annual Harlem parade where friends and families in the community can gather and celebrate our shared history. These events are critically important in the formation of the public memory of the battle for racial equality.
For the woke among the citizenry today, we can also celebrate July Fourth precisely because of the more complex historical tale of the United States. There is a strong progressive tradition that also began in 1776. My love for America comes from being part of the great sweep of history that contains the loyal opposition to oppression in all its forms. I support the struggle for equal rights for people of color, working class folks, women, and those in the LBGTQ community. In addition, I will engage in a bit of holiday fun and silliness by eating tons of barbeque, wearing red, white and blue, and singing along to Katy Perry’s Firework. It is a joyous day. I know what gives me great purpose is that the fight continues the next day.