Black On The 4th of July
I’m Black on the 4th of July. I live in Philly, a city that celebrates the holiday heavily. I’ve heard fireworks cracking through the night air for days. I’ve seen crowds clad in red, white, and blue clogging the parkway. It wouldn’t be America if sporadic drunken shouting didn’t pepper the evening from sunset to sunrise. But I don’t feel very festive at all.
Some of my fondest memories are of a childhood spent watching lights explode over glistening waters. Jumping into lakes while burgers turn brown. Catching candy at parades. I spent my teenage years pushing my way towards the stage at the annual free concert put on by The Roots. I donned my country’s colors. Growing up, it went without question that I was celebrating the 4th of July — it was simply a matter of where to do it.
As an adult, I’m more ambivalent. I know that during America’s first celebration of its freedom, my ancestors were in chains. I know that on this 240th celebration of American freedom, I don’t feel free. Black people who exercise freedom are perceived immediately as a threat. We can’t safely laugh or play music too loud, wear hoods over our heads, play with toy guns as children, stand on a corner for too long, knock on a stranger’s door in a crisis, or reach for our inhalers under tense circumstances. I never feel free to be fully at ease — I know my ‘freedom’ is always at stake.
In a country keeping 2, 220,000 people in cages — I know that American freedom is something granted to those deemed worthy, and stripped from the many deemed unfit for their human right to autonomy. I know the standards for who is worthy shift based on color and class. As the child of a formerly incarcerated man, one of my earliest lessons in freedom was that it gets taken away from people like me all the time. And so the holiday seems more like a day where the haves celebrate the privileges they have over the have-nots. It seems like a cruel joke with me and mine as the punchline.
I don’t know whether to celebrate or stay inside.
Yesterday, we grilled at my mom’s house. She and my aunts drank pink moscato and laughed. My brother and my husband prepared the food. My sister in law and I indulged in the guilty pleasures of reality tv. My son and his cousins ran laps around each other. We were there for the 4th of July, but it was hardly apparent. No one wore red, white, or blue. No one mentioned America, or freedom, or independence. Instead, we talked about our own memories of each other. Moments we’d shared. The holiday was just a reason to get together, to have communion.
And if I think about it, a lot of things in my life are this way. I constantly negotiate what I know to be true and wrong against what brings me some small semblance of pleasure. On Thanksgiving, I fill my belly with a familial feast. I talk about gratitude with my loved ones, like gratitude can gloss over genocide. On Christmas, I bloat the bottom of the tree with gifts for my son — though I’m anti-capitalist and left the church before I graduated high school.
I do it because I want to create communal memories for both my son and myself, though the community moves in ways that contradict the truths I want to teach him. I want him to marvel at the annual fireworks, and look forward to his uncle’s homemade baked beans. I want him to be prepared for the ugliness of the world — and I want him to celebrate being in the world.
James Baldwin once wrote, “To be Black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” That truth has grown stronger in my life with time. When you can see the injustice which permeates everything, it becomes hard to enjoy anything. But I want better for myself and I certainly want more for my children. How do I teach them joy and awareness? How do I teach them a functional level of cognitive dissonance? To enjoy a life in a place worthy of condemnation?
Do I take my son to the parade, allow him to collect his free candy, dance to the live performance of Kidz Bop on the parkway, and then take him home with a disclaimer on American’s broken legacy of freedom? Do I abstain, lead by example, create our own tradition, and celebrate something separate entirely? Do I treat it like any other Monday, pretend there are no lights booming outside?
I don’t have an answer yet. I’m struggling today, on the last 4th of July before my son starts remembering them. I don’t know that there’s a right answer for Black people. I think if we want to make space for ourselves in a celebration of something we don’t have, yet (but deserve) — that’s okay. There’s very little that’s for us in this world, and we’re often forced to include ourselves if we want inclusion.
I think if we refuse to bear witness to the celebration of a reality that doesn’t exist for us — that’s okay, too. Being Black in America has been painful for centuries, and watching the lie (“America is a free country!” + “Liberty and justice for all!”) that aids many white Americans in ignoring our struggle entirely is equally painful and infuriating.
Today I’m eating BBQ leftovers, writing this piece, and relaxing. Later, I’ll take my son onto the roof of the grocery store nearby, to watch fireworks burst over the city. I’ll be far from the crowds and their flags, but close enough to know that today is not any other day. I want the celebration, the happiness, the tradition — but I also want the truth. I want to be included in the festivities, but I don’t want to participate until I’m included in the narrative. I am walking the line between two realities, a tightrope all Black people tread. I am trying to find pleasure in pain.