What, In Light of Juneteenth, Is The Fourth of July? 

Why the proximity of the two holidays should provoke reflection

This July 4th, America for the 248th time celebrates its independence from British rule. But the proximity of Juneteenth, now a federal holiday since President Biden designated it as such in 2023, should force Americans to take a closer look at what this holiday really represents.

More than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and two months after the end of the Civil War, enslaved African Americans in Texas found out they were free on June 19, 1865.

With two wildly different — yet celebratory — liberation narratives about independence, Americans must reconcile her founding ideals with their spotty lived reality.

Frederick Douglass called America out on its hypocrisy more than a century and a half ago in his 1852 speech, “What, to the slave, is the Fourth of July?” In it, Douglass stated that a country in the throes of slavery must close its yawning gap between the principles of the United States and the violence and trauma this country has inflicted on Black people. His words still resonate today.

“What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence…. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us,” wrote Douglass. “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.” This is especially true for the Black LGBTQ+ portion of the community.

U.S. history is full of Black patriotism

Yet despite the unequal treatment of African Americans in the United States, Black patriotism shines across the pages of U.S. history. African Americans fought in a segregated military in every war defending this country until 1948. Crispus Attucks, a brother of African and Native American ancestry from Framingham, was the first martyr for America’s independence in the American Revolution. Prince Estabrook, an enslaved man from Lexington, Mass., and a Black Minuteman, was wounded in the Revolution’s first battle.

Enslaved Africans who fought for the British, called Black Loyalists, were ensured their freedom after the war. Enslaved Africans who fought for the United States sadly were not.

Black patriotism has been exhibited not just on the battlefields of America’s wars but also in demands for equality in her streets and arenas. Let’s remember San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, for example, who protested police brutality against Blacks by taking a knee during the national anthem in 2016.

His actions were condemned as polarizing, un-American and unpatriotic. President Trump stoked the flames, criticizing Kaepernick and his allies and labeling them as being against the American flag, police and the military.

In response came an outpouring of defense, celebrating Black Americans’ history of protest. Attorney General Eric Holder tweeted a photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. down on his left knee in Selma, Ala, in 1965. Holder added, “Taking a knee is not without precedent, Mr. President. Those who dared to protest have helped bring positive change.” As King said in his Montgomery Bus Boycott speech on December 5, 1955, “The great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.”

The controversy of taking a knee during “The Star-Spangled Banner” brought heightened attention to the song’s racist history. Francis Scott Key, who penned the lyrics, supported slavery and came from an influential plantation family in Maryland. The song’s third verse, no longer sung after the Civil War, included the lyrics, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”

‘That’s your foot on my neck’

When patriotism is narrowly defined, it can only be accepted and exhibited within the constraints of its own nation’s intolerance.

Acts of patriotism and protest, however, have yet to accomplish their ultimate goals of equality and freedom from oppression. In depicting the grip of white supremacist domestic terrorism on Black lives, Malcolm X in 1965 with a prophetic voice said: “That’s not a chip on my shoulder. That’s your foot on my neck.”

In 2020, the world saw a now former Minnesota Police officer murder George Floyd — with his knee on Floyd’s neck.

This Fourth of July, people will once again sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and reenact the Continental Congress of 1776.

This Fourth, however, will be different from the previous ones. Juneteenth can no longer stand to the side of America’s celebration of independence. The newly recognized federal holiday should encourage Americans to reconsider and expand their ideas of patriotism, what loving one’s country looks like. It highlights how Juneteenth — and Black liberation — is inextricably linked to America’s core values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans that this Independence Day is meant to be celebrating.