“What to the Prisoner Is the Fourth of July?”

Incarcerated, disenfranchised, and condemned by society.

The 4th of July is one of those holidays I never know what to do with.  Go see some fireworks?  Not a big thrill.  Catch a parade and wave the flag?  That’s not my style.  Attend a cook-out and eat some burgers and brats prepared on the grill?   That’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t make me feel particularly plugged into celebrating the nation’s independence, especially when I know that precious independence quite purposefully excluded the African slaves forcefully brought to America.

For over a year I tried and failed to find a Black-oriented website interested in running a story about The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness by Michelle Alexander.  Maybe it’s more my fault than the editors I submitted my pitch to.   Maybe I assumed wrong that they would be interested in the shocking and sobering facts Alexander’s excellent book  reveals such as “There are more African Americans under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”

Or maybe I just made a lousy pitch to the wrong publications.  It’s possible.   It’s also possible we as a people prefer to forget about the men and women we lock away even as also forget most of them will be coming out someday.   What does a Black man who has been incarcerated, disenfranchised and deprived of any way to better  his circumstances come out to except the high probability he will end up back in prison?    Even if he spends this national holiday as man freed from a cell, is he truly a free man?

Alexander wrote a book that should stir a movement.

In any case, rather than celebrate America’s day of independence, instead take a moment to remember there are nearly 900,000  Black men behind bars (my nephew is one of them), some that deserve to be there, but many more who are casualties of this country’s racist War on Drugs and ask as Frederick Douglass did in this edited version of “What, To the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?”

It works almost the same way if you change “slave” to “prisoner.”

Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold, that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. …

But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? …

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 sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, 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 these United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

Douglass would not have wasted this day watching fireworks.

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