OP:ED – Independence Day: Should we celebrate Juneteenth or the Fourth of July? Or both or neither?

By Felecia Piggott-Anderson

For The Chronicle

The celebration of the Fourth of July 2022 is especially problematic for all Americans in light of policing problems, the believed shortage of independence for women following Roe v. Wade reversal, the January 6 hearings regarding the insurrection at the Capitol, mass shootings around the nation, as well as violence and racism in the wake of the death of George Floyd in 2020. For African Americans, other issues have arisen, such as the national observance of Juneteenth.

Although the nation finally experienced the recognition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday in all 50 states, the question arises: Should we celebrate Juneteenth, or the Fourth of July, or both, or neither? 

I contend that historically, the Fourth of July has been a time for African Americans to assert their rights as American citizens through protest, starting with Crispus Attucks, the first martyr of the American Revolution, on the night of March 5, 1770, during the Boston Massacre, according to Lerone Bennett, Jr. in “Before the Mayflower.” 

Why should we stop now?  We should celebrate both holidays and any other event that allows us the opportunity to discover more about ourselves.

Since 1776 when the signing of the Declaration of Independence became front-page news in the New York Gazette, during the 1700s and the 1800s African Americans, such as Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass of The North Star, and William Wells Brown, used the national celebration of the Fourth of July as an opportunity to convince and remind white Americans that Blacks are worthy of freedom and citizenship. 

On July 4, 1776, or 246 years ago today, America broke away from British rule and Americans were finally able to celebrate independence as a nation. However, for more than 400 years, more than 400,000 African people were stolen from their homelands and forced to build this country, which became this “free” America. But was America truly free?  

Since April 9, 1865, and June 19, 1865, or 157 years ago today, when the Confederacy surrendered to the Union, and Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and declared General Order Number Three respectively, all enslaved Americans were declared free. Therefore, Juneteenth or Jubilee Day became Independence Day for enslaved Americans. 

Should African Americans celebrate their independence on the Fourth of July or on the 19th of June or honor both holidays?

For some African Americans, this year’s Fourth of July resonates with greater meaning than usual because this year’s Independence Day observance comes on the heels of our nation’s willingness to reckon with the past and acknowledge Juneteenth as a federal holiday. It was acknowledged nationwide.  

However, for other African Americans, only Juneteenth now symbolizes their Independence Day. In fact, some African Americans never celebrated the Fourth of July. For them, the Fourth of July holiday is just a day for a cookout because they, like abolitionist Frederick Douglass, contend that the Fourth of July meant nothing to the enslaved, and thus it means nothing to freed African Americans today.

On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass asked a question at the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York, during his Fourth of July speech in Corinthian Hall. His question was, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” How can someone who is not free celebrate freedom?  Douglass advances an argument against the existence of slavery in the United States. 

While the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution celebrate the American values of liberty, citizenship, and the pursuit of happiness, how can the enslaved feel positive about what he has not attained?  While the fathers and founders of the nation are celebrated as great statesmen and honored as patriots of this great nation by some, Douglass brands them as hypocrites who have betrayed all of these values because true freedom cannot exist in America if all men in America are not free.

Douglass asks, “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom, national justice embodied in the Declaration extended to us?” Of course, the answer is nay.  Children of the enslaved are auctioned away like cattle and chattel. Douglass says that if Americans believe slaves are men, they should be treated as men, not as victims of violence and inhumanity. Douglass says that the Fourth of July is a “sham,” that your sounds of rejoicing are “empty and heartless,” that your prayers and sermons and hymns, your thanksgivings, with your religious parades, are “deception and fraud.”

Douglass denounces the Christians and the church members for failing to uphold their own Christian values. Why should the church own slaves?  When the church owns slaves, they turn religion into a vehicle of “barbaric cruelty.”  Douglass admonishes Christians, “You profess to believe that of one blood, God made all nations of men to dwell on the face of all the earth and commanded all men everywhere to love one another, yet you hate and glory in your hatred of all men whose skins are not colored like your own.”

Douglass explores the heinous harshness of enslavement. He cites the slave-whip, the screams, the weight of the chains, the slave auction, the women being exposed to the “shocking gaze of American slave buyers” and other forms of oppression, mockery, and torture waged against Black people. Frederick Douglass charges America with the sin of hypocrisy for excluding African Americans from the values of liberty, citizenship, and the pursuit of happiness.

What will we do now that we have the knowledge of Juneteenth and the limitations of July 4? One segment of the African American population has observed June 19 as the Juneteenth holiday for freedom in America. Another segment of the African American population has observed the Fourth of July as a form of patriotic protest. Still another segment of the population observes both holidays. Others refuse to celebrate the Fourth of July at all. They would rather boycott it because of the complicated issues involved.   

What have you decided? Ultimately, the decision is up to each of us.

Dr. Felecia (Joseph) Piggott-Anderson is the pastor of Alpha and Omega Church of Faith, Inc. She earned her Ph.D from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in English and African American Literature and wrote her dissertation on the Black Arts Movement and the North Carolina Black Repertory Company. She currently teaches AP English, journalism and theatre arts at Carver High School.

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