By Karen Greene Braithwaite, as told to Lynnette Nicholas, Reader’s Digest
When I was growing up in the late 1970s, I didn’t learn the full truth about America’s history from my teachers. Back then, you only got bits and pieces of America’s past. It wasn’t until college that I became more informed. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, many Black people were still enslaved, and they continued to be used as property for the gain of plantation owners for many years afterward.
When you think of how those in power controlled and manipulated the mindsets of the enslaved for material gain, it’s sickening and disheartening. So, while the government said that all men were created equal, the reality was that the state of the nation was only being changed for certain people. For that reason, the Fourth of July has always been complicated for me.
The Fourth isn’t just about cookouts and fireworks
Learning about history, especially the history of America, has made a lasting impression on me and changed how I celebrate holidays. While I can’t pinpoint the exact time that I came to the realization that America’s Independence Day was not my own, I do recall reading Frederick Douglass’s speech that he gave on the fifth of July one year, and it definitely resonated with me.
I was able to immediately identify that the freedoms he was discussing back then did not necessarily extend to people who look like me today. After reading that speech, the disparities between the Black and White experience lingered in my mind, all throughout my adulthood as well. Even as a child, I remember July 4th as being a holiday that did not carry much weight. We all just enjoyed the day off, had wonderful barbecues, and watched the beautiful fireworks.
While you likely know a bit about Frederick Douglass, you probably didn’t learn about these 35 Black Americans in school.
America’s problematic national symbols
After completing law school and becoming a mother, my perspective changed altogether. While I used to support and go along with all the traditions associated with the American flag, the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and traditional American festivities and customs, now I no longer find the holiday of any real value to me and my family.
When I think of the racist lyrics of the third verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which states, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave, from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave, and the star-spangled banner in triumph we wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave,” I can’t associate with those ideals.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” was written by one of the richest men in America at the time, Francis Scott Key, who happened to be a poet, lawyer, and slave owner. Celebrating violence against enslaved people is truly disturbing, and it’s embedded within our national anthem. Whether people choose to sing it or not, it is still symbolic of the larger problem we have with racism in the United States.
Celebrating a holiday with more cultural relevance to the Black community
As a lawyer, I feel very comfortable in my decision not to celebrate the Fourth of July. From a legal standpoint, I am aware that the country had to start somewhere—starting with independence and establishing this government made it so that there are elections and an election process. And today, I do believe that America really does try to adhere to an election process. I see that this country strives to make things better in society with laws, and while we have been able to change things in that way, the situation is far from resolved and the system is not perfect.
In our home, we replace the Fourth of July with Juneteenth. It used to be very regional, with Southern states and towns taking it on as their own for many, many years. Now, it has expanded, and I think it’s really cool that Black Americans have adopted their own independence day.
Initially, I felt somewhat removed from celebrating Juneteenth, but now that I have a greater understanding of what it truly means for Black people—a celebration of when we were all truly free—I totally embrace it with my family. It’s a pretty significant day. I’m from North Carolina, and while it took a while for communities to start celebrating Juneteenth, it really means something to me. I think it’s special that there is now more than one way to celebrate independence in America.
An incomplete history
In the context of celebrating American history, I believe the Fourth of July represents an incomplete history. It doesn’t reflect the full truth about Black Americans at the time the Declaration of Independence was signed. Without holidays like Juneteenth that celebrate the real experiences of Black people, American history is incomplete. You cannot even make a logical story without it, because Black people’s enslavement and labor was such an integral part of building our society and our economy. This history is embedded in literally everything—from the Constitution to our day-to-day life, local laws, and ordinances—and so much wouldn’t make sense to someone who wasn’t familiar with America’s history.
I recognize the fact that Black people have been treated poorly and exploited yet have risen above these circumstances. And I am adamant that Black history is the history of this country. If you really listen to the words of the Black National Anthem, it tells the story of America and how we had to come over a very difficult, dark path. We still do, even today. It’s like Obama’s election, which indeed gave us hope but did not necessarily change anything. We’re still marching on for that true American ideal.
I think that July 4th should become a day of reflection for everyone about what that day in history really meant for this country as a whole. In order for any change in paradigms and for the history and holidays in American culture to have a true spirit of unity, there has to be a collective effort.