On July 5th, 1852, Frederick Douglass wrote “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,”
“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 cruelly 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.”
The truth is that what white Americans call freedom has been built on Black enslavement from the very beginning of this country. The fourth of July is the anniversary of signing the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776, in Philadelphia Pennsylvania by the Second Continental Congress. There are fifty-six signatures on the United State’s founding document that declares “all men are created equal,” and thirty-four of them are known to have owned enslaved people. That’s just over 60%.
Along with genocide of Native Americans, Slavery is America’s original sin. The idea that the signatories were truly committed to the belief that all men were created equal is one of the first white lies of American history. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the words, owned more than 600 enslaved people throughout his lifetime.
Throughout my childhood, I would celebrate that day and be told that I was celebrating freedom. At the time it was easy to believe because I felt very free as a young white boy with a white family in a white town believing every white lie of history. As I grew older and read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in high school and then became exposed to a new world of truth as a college student, the lies came crumbling down.
America’s next big white lie is that slavery ended with the thirteenth amendment:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Even now, almost every explanation or summary of this amendment will claim that it ended slavery, when this “except” stands intentional and indispensable, yet to so many, invisible, like the hidden passages Jefferson’s slaves would take at Monticello to avoid being seen by his white dinner guests.
There are about 2.3 million incarcerated people in the United States. Almost half a million of these people, or 1 in 5, are locked up for nonviolent drug offenses, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, and police in the United States still make about one million arrests for drug possession every year. The racial disparities in incarceration are quite shocking: the sentencing project has found that on average there are 1,408 incarcerated Black people for every 100,000 Black people and 275 incarcerated white people for every 100,000 white people.
Although private companies have come under scrutiny for their use of prison labor, or slavery, most prison labor is exploited to benefit the state itself. The annual value resulting from prison labor is estimated to be at least $2 billion per year, with the average hourly pay for prisoners far less than $1 per hour. Most recently, prison labor has been exploited to manufacture hand sanitizer, medical gowns and masks to fight the COVID-19 pandemic at the same time that the Coronavirus has hit prisons extremely hard, and more than 40 million people are unemployed because of the pandemic.
Prisons have become an essential part of the 21st-century capitalist economy by filling in the gaps of essential service in cases where the state is unwilling or unable to pay the real value of essential labor. Prisoners have been used to fight California’s deadly wildfires, which have drastically intensified in recent years due to global warming. Last month, prison labor replaced striking sanitation workers in New Orleans. In Louisiana and several other states, prisoners are known to be groundskeepers and cafeteria workers at the capitol building, and clean up the stadium after the state University’s football games, according to a report in AlterNet. Even the American flag, still viewed by many as a symbol of freedom, is being made by oppressed prison laborers.
Speaking in a session of Cannon’s Class at Howard University, Dr. Bahiyyah M. Muhammad decried the use of prison labor and emphasized the need for prisoners to be able to meditate and read in order to educate themselves for rehabilitation and to pray for their forgiveness. After all, the word penitentiary is derived from penitent, which is a synonym of repentant, which means to feel sorrow and regret for sin.
Often, prison labor is justified by its supporters because it is a pathway to early release. But that pathway to freedom is literal enslavement. And while the state will allow prisoners to do jobs as dangerous as fighting fires, they limit prisoners’ ability to read. Books are allowed, but not all books. Upwards of 15,000 titles have at some point been banned by prisons including many titles by Black authors who are critical of prisons and white supremacy such as Angela Davis, Frantz Fanon, Maya Angelou, Michelle Alexander, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Mumia Abu-Jamal and others. States including Texas and Wisconsin, which have some of the largest banned book lists, still allow for Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
‘A signal of dire distress’
Section (a) of the US flag code states “The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.” In America today, we are undoubtedly in an era of dire distress and extreme danger to life.
Distress and extreme danger, however, have been the norm in the United States from the very beginning. The undeniable truth of history is that America is a nation founded on the genocide of Native American people and the enslavement of Africans. The inability to reconcile or repent for this fact has led to where we are now.
Today, I see clearly that all those years I thought I was celebrating freedom, I was really celebrating my own white privilege. I live in a country where the true idyllic freedom that all people have certain “unalienable rights” does not exist as more than a theory. I have the extreme privilege of being a white male in America and that does come with certain freedoms:
For starters, I am free from the fear that I will be killed by police when I am walking home from a convenience store with an iced tea, or if I happen to be selling loose cigarettes, or if I am suspected of paying with a counterfeit bill, or if I fall asleep in a parked car, or if I am using a cellphone in my grandmother’s backyard, or if I am in my own bed in my own home. I am free to go where I please and do what I please, and even do things I know are illegal, knowing that it will most likely never cost me my life.
America is not equal and America is not free. The coronavirus pandemic has made it obvious but this is the way it has always been. So I am committed to changing that in every way I can, and the first, easiest way to change is to change myself. So this year I will not celebrate the privilege that has only ever been granted to some Americans because exclusivity has no place in my definition of freedom.
My intention is not to judge or shame anyone who wants to enjoy the Fourth of July. Have your barbecue, if your conscience allows it, but do so with a renewed consciousness of America’s true history and commitment to make whatever privileges you enjoy accessible to all people. For it is critical for white Americans to know the difference between the freedom that ought to be granted to all and the privilege that is extended to a select few. It is critical to see the white lies of history for what they are and see the damage they have done. Most of all, it is critical that we see how America has always fallen short of the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, and instead of celebrating a past that never was or a present that is not, use your barbecue, and every day to have an honest discussion about how to take actions that will create a future that can and must be where all people are not simply created equal, but are treated equally as well.
And sometime between pouring the first drink and putting away the dishes, use your time and money to support groups that are fighting for the rights of people who have learned about slavery, mass incarceration and discrimination from their own life experience. Because it is another privilege for you to be reading about this just as it is for me to be writing about it while many people are locked up making medical gear or America flags, or caring for the children of Black and brown people killed by police.
Groups to support
“Founded by Frederick Douglass in 1847, The North Star was one of the most important liberation newspapers of its day, guiding the compass of all who read it towards the north star of liberation. 172 years after it was first established, with the permission and blessing of Frederick Douglass’ family, we have relaunched The North Star as a modern media enterprise.”
“Critical Resistance seeks to build an international movement to end the Prison Industrial Complex by challenging the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe.”
“The Marshall Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system.”
“The Center for Prison Reform is more than just an advocacy group. We are a coalition of like-minded partners that support prison reform at every stage of the process”