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Why Criticizing the Fourth of July Isn’t Un-American

by Josh Jerabek, Intern

Quote: "I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually." - James Baldwin

The Fourth of July holds a distinct place in the hearts of Americans across the United States. It goes as an unspoken rule that we reserve this day to relax with loved ones, don our best red, white, & blue outfit, perhaps host a backyard barbecue, and end the evening taking in a brilliantly-colored fireworks display. The holiday has become synonymous with unbridled patriotism and pride in the United States. But what if you aren’t proud of everything that the U.S. has done or is doing?

What if, while you’re spending time with loved ones, you can’t shake the thought of the tens of thousands of immigrants being held in dismal detention centers separated from their families or the 2.3 million other people in the U.S. prison industrial complex, many of whom are caught in cycles of recidivism without any hope of a life post-incarceration? What if, as you take in the bright lights and the loud explosions of fireworks, you can’t help remembering that the United States has and continues to enable foreign military campaigns that often bring displacement and death to innocent civilians abroad? 

These are just a few of the things you may be carrying around in your heart and your mind as you go about the holiday. Thinking about any of the other dark pieces of America’s past or the plethora of current troubling issues is a quick way to rain on pretty much anyone’s 4th of July parade, but does this mean there’s no way to enjoy “America’s birthday?” This is not a new question; this national paradox has existed since the phrase “all men are created equal” was penned by men who participated in and profited from the ownership of human beings. Perhaps one of the most well-known figures to struggle with the apparent hypocrisy arising from celebrating America’s double-edged legacy of freedom and justice was famed orator Frederick Douglass. Before giving up the barbeques and fireworks completely, it would do some good to look to Douglass’s life and work to inform our response to the upcoming holiday. 

Douglass, escaped slave turned esteemed abolitionist, delivered a biting address titled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” as a part of the holiday celebrations in 1852. The speech begins with a deliberate reference to the founding fathers as “statesmen, patriots, and heroes,” and Douglass makes his respect for their sacrifice and efforts abundantly clear. He goes on, however, to highlight the reality that the efforts of those who shaped our nation did not go far enough: “I am not included within the glorious pale of this glorious anniversary!..The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine.” Delivered at a time when slavery would not be abolished for over a decade, the speech paints a powerful picture not only of Douglass’s own life, but of every African American and minority during that time and ever since: desperately wanting to experience and celebrate America’s famed freedom and liberty while being shut out on account of their marginalized identities. 

Douglass called not for the abolition of the Fourth of July but rather to use the holiday as an opportunity for a deep and unabashed look at the current state of the nation. At the time, this yielded a picture of a society marred by violence, inequality, and injustice, not unlike our current reality. Much like the beginning of the speech, Douglass ends on a more positive note: hope. He stresses the relative youth of the United States and its potential for future change. And while the country has aged almost two hundred years since his address was delivered, the sentiment still stands. The United States is still young, and the principles Douglass praised are still what makes the country capable of great things. By taking an honest look at U.S. history, we can see there is no idealistic past to return to; all we have are hopeful visions of a more just and equitable future. 

Living in America today means much of our lives have been influenced by the exploits of this nation, whether they be past or present, good or bad. Like it or not, each individual’s identity and story is inescapably intertwined with this country’s history and actions. However, just because we may be aware of the ugly pieces of United States’s history or its current transgressions does not mean Independence Day festivities must be replaced with cynicism, denial, blame, or guilt. Instead, we can and should take the opportunity to celebrate the best parts of our country while being unafraid to be critical about the numerous parts that need to change. It is the perfect time to reflect on our responsibility to bring about peaceful and just answers to current wrongs in our nation while making sure the worst is behind us. To quote James Baldwin, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”