What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
~ Frederick Douglass, July 5, 1852
I wonder would Mr. Douglass be proud of America today?
I wonder would he believe a Black man named Barack Obama sits in the White House this July 4 as the Most Powerful Man in the World?
Douglass challenged the nation to live up to its promise and fulfill its destiny to be the bastion of liberty and justice that it so proudly proclaimed. He would not turn a blind eye to America’s hypocrisy toward the slave. One wonders what was the reaction of the White Americans to this angry Black man who with such eloquence tore away the veil of racism and exclusion that shrouded the vision of so many of his countrymen.
Here in the United States we are cursed by our short attention spans and remarkable ability to delude ourselves that everybody in the world wants to be just like us. By “us” I mean like White America. Certainly not Black America. To be Black in America is to be a problem to be solved.
I don’t know how far over the hump President Obama gets us. A damn sight further than we’ve ever been before, but not quite there yet. Some of our “friends” on the Right and on the Left of the political sides of the aisle have prematurely proclaimed with Obama’s victory comes a “post-racial” America.
Even Obama knows better than to believe that. When he was forced to speak out about race following the controversy over Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama himself made it clear that his personal odyssey did not mean all African-Americans were soon to arrive at The Promised Land.
This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy – particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.
But I have asserted a firm conviction – a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people – that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice is we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.
This Fourth of July feels just a little bit different than any of the others I’ve experienced in my 53 years of life. I have no illusions that President Obama can cure all or most of the nation’s ills in four or eight years. All he can do is the same thing any of us can do; try to leave things a little bit better than the way we found them.
The day will come when a Latino woman on the Supreme Court is no big thing. Further on down the road children will read history books detailing the furor gay marriage stirred up and shake their heads on how things were “back then.” Sooner, not later, a woman will raise her right hand and take the Oath of Office of the President of the United States.
It’s not a bad thing to be an American. Nowhere else has a country gone from the ignorance and evil of slavery to the possibility of redemption by overcoming its notorious past and elevating the son of a White woman from Kansas and a Black man from Kenya to its highest elected office.
Blacks have always loved America. They were among the first ones to lay down their lives for its independence. But that love has been one-sided and not returned from the country. The Fourth of July wasn’t a day to be fully celebrated because there were still too many wrongs not made right, too many dreams deferred, too many promises made that were not kept.
This is a different Fourth of July than any others preceding it. I’m a lot prouder of my country than I ever have been in the past. It’s a sentiment I would wager is shared by many other Black Americans today. A feeling of belonging. A sense of finally being fully vested in the American Dream.
This is not because of Barack Obama. He is merely part of a result brought about by the labors of a Frederick Douglass and millions of Black, White, Latino, Asian, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, agnostics and atheists, Northerners and Southerns, gay and straight, men, women and children who gave their body, mind and soul to the forging of a more perfect union.
We’re not there yet. But we’re closer today than we were when Douglass made his anguished lament in 1852.
We can only go forward. There is no going back.