If you identify as Afro-Latinx, the Fourth of July can bring up some complicated feelings, to say the least. Although the day commemorates the Founding Fathers officially declaring independence from Great Britain’s tyrannical monarch, it also is a day to celebrate American patriotism, which in some spheres has developed into a sort of blind nationalism.
It can be difficult to feel in the mood to wrap yourself in the American flag and sing the “Star Spangled Banner” when we’re constantly subjected to headlines exposing the horrors of the migrant crisis at the border, mass incarceration of black and brown people, and not to mention, the history of the US being founded through the oppression and enslavement of black and brown people.
Chris Rock put it perfectly a few years ago when he took to Twitter to speak his thoughts about the Fourth of July: “Happy white people’s Independence Day. The slaves weren’t free, but I’m sure they enjoyed fireworks”. That’s the feeling that many Black Americans feel regarding the day that we’re supposed to celebrate as the birth of one of the greatest, richest, most powerful countries in the world.
For many Black Americans, the Fourth of July is simply a painful reminder of all of the injustices, past, and present, that America has inflicted on their people.
From slavery to Jim Crow laws, to lynchings, to police brutality, to mass incarceration, there seems to be so much violence inflicted on the Black community at large by the hands of American institutions of authority.
Not only does the celebration of the “independence” of America from its colonial oppressors conveniently ignore the years of slavery America subjected Black people too, but it also ignores the genocide of the indigenous populations that lived in the U.S. before European colonization. Are we to forget that the whole continent of North America was completely “independent” before white colonizers ever stepped foot onto its soil?
As Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodríguez from Latino Rebels wrote scathingly in her piece, “The Fourth of July: A Celebration of Hatred” and you will find a lot of white smiling faces, celebrating as if America was ever theirs to begin with.” So yeah: Independence Day is a complicated holiday for people of color for more than one reason.
Before the Civil War, Independence Day was historically a holiday almost exclusively celebrated by whites.
And why shouldn’t it have been? Even for free blacks, it would’ve been hard to express devotion to a country that currently enslaved thousands of people of your same race solely based on the color of their skin. As Frederick Douglass put it eloquently in a speech addressed to a crowd of white people during a Fourth of July gathering: “I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn…”
According to historians, if a black American did celebrate Independence Day before the Civil War, they would often do it on July 5th to acknowledge the different relationship they, as black people, had with the so-called “land of the free” that was both their oppressor and their home country.
But, interestingly enough, there was a major shift in feelings towards the 4th of July in the black community after the Civil War ended.
So, although the Fourth of July does not rank among the likes of Martin Luther King day for its importance in Black History, it nonetheless has a surprising history of celebration with America’s black community.
While most white Southerners felt little to no loyalty towards the United States of America after the Civil War and would “shut themselves within doors”, as one woman put it, in order to blot out the shame of their failed rebellion, black Southerners began to look to the holiday as a way to celebrate their new-found freedom. Basking in their new freedom, black Americans looked to the holiday as a way to celebrate their own independence as well as the independence of the country they lived in.
According to Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts at The Atlantic, after the Civil War ended, free blacks “gathered together to watch fireworks and listen to orators recite the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of Independence, and the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery when it was ratified in late 1865”. Black Americans organized parades in honor of Independence Day, congregating to watch companies of black militia march down the streets.
Black southerners also created a ritual song and dance called “Too-la-loo” in which a group of men and women would form a ring, a woman would move to the center, and eventually, she would choose a suitor to join her. The game was so popular that “Too-la-loo” eventually “became shorthand for the Fourth of July” in South Carolina.
But like many burgeoning black traditions in the Antebellum South, the establishment of the Fourth of July as a black holiday was short-lived. Once Jim Crow laws took hold of the local government, the white population made it all but impossible for black people to continue their Independence Day festivities. Authorities pushed their “Too-la-loo” festivities to the outskirts of the city, and eventually, out of the city altogether. They forbid vendors from setting up shop on the streets where the festivities had been taking place. After a few years, black people no longer looked to the Fourth of July as a means to celebrate their freedom, and it became a “white holiday” once again.
These days, the Afro-Latinx population in America still wrestle with complicated feelings towards the Fourth of July.
On one hand, it can be viewed as a carefree celebration–a time to enjoy barbecues, beer, and fireworks with your friends and family and, of course, to get a day off of work. But, when some Latinx people look deeper into the holiday, it’s hard not to experience feelings of emptiness or frustration. And these feelings can be exasperated when you’re Afro-Latinx, as you have both the specter of black slavery and indigenous genocide to contend with on a day that is meant to celebrate American exceptionalism. As Patricia Montes, a Honduran immigrant living in Boston, said about the Fourth of July in an interview, “I feel very conflicted. What are we celebrating? Are we celebrating democracy?”