Since I was very young, I’ve wondered a lot about this curious yet elusive concept: freedom. I wondered why my second grade teacher told me that the United States gained independence on July 4, 1776. I wondered why I believed her even though three of my older cousins, two uncles, and six neighbors from the block disappeared behind prison bars. As a Black man growing up unfree, incessantly in the face of unyielding trepidation, freedom has always felt like a cruel cage—one that mocks but ignores the irony that, in this lifetime, one in three Black men will find themselves lost at some stage in the tragic cycle of mass incarceration.
Fast forward years later: Although I’d forget my teacher’s name, I’d long remember her lesson. Fortunately, I’d also realize that the lesson she taught me was, in fact, a lie. I’d learn that her celebration of July 4th was also mockery but of more than just Black men. It mocks the tragic legacies of oppression that afflict unfree people like me, that still—to this day—afflict the many unfree people across this globe. I’d learn that her definition of “free,” as opposed to unfree, was based solely in a vocabulary to which I’ve never gained access, spoken in a language foreign even to the very people who first planted civilization in the fertile soil of this now morally barren land.
The freedom of which my teacher boasted wasn’t freedom at all, but a corruption of it borne of the stripes scarred to the backs and bloodied to the swollen hands of slaves. It was purchased for cheap through unconscionable acts of evil—theft and genocide, rape and murder. The legacy of this freedom would debase bodies and break apart homes. It would invent divisions based on artificial borders (geographical parentheses that bracket arbitrary and unnecessary “national” fault lines). What my teacher experienced as freedom, I have grown wise to question and have, thus, come know precisely for what it is: a stubborn system of oppression that promotes national and global suffering.
On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass would allude to this system of suffering, this biased bill of bondage, when he famously asked: “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” For Douglass, the observance of “national independence” seemed much like a farce, but a peculiar kind of prank, one that compelled him to ask: “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in the Declaration of Independence, extended to us?” Today, July 4, 2015, I firmly believe the the “us” to which Douglass refers must be extended:
What does the Fourth of July mean to a woman who could not vote or own property or even today earn a fair wage for a fair day’s work?
What does it mean to a citizen whose parents exist unfree because of immigration policies that outlaw their human right to travel, to migrate and search out a better life for themselves and their families?
What does it mean to citizens born free but who are made to live obsolete as vagabonds in freedom’s shadows, under the heinous yet cruel veil of slavery—which is emblematic of the vile and inglorious confederate flag?
What does it mean to the irrepressible and striving remnants of First Nation’s societies, people whose liberties, languages, and lives remain at risk and at question, whose livelihoods and lands were lost at the expense of Europe’s unjustified greed and egregious campaigns of global theft and terror?
What does it mean when bodies are constantly groped by hidden cameras, where, as a populace, we are made rigidly to persist under the law of perpetual surveillance?
What does it mean to people who in schools and workplaces, hospitals and courtrooms feel marginalized for speaking and embodying Anzaldua’s mestiza, for possessing non-conforming hips and hair textures, for having hoodie-covered heads and burka-framed eyes that refuse to blink or bow in the face of corrupt authorities?
What does the Fourth of July mean for people who have just gained the right to marry the individuals they love, who have just been granted a chance to care for the ones their hearts, too, keep?
There are millions, perhaps even billions, of people enlisted in the assembly of Douglass’s “us.” We are the globally dispossess, history’s 99.9% for whom freedom has failed, for whom the annual celebration of national independence does not apply.
Don’t get me wrong: The fourth of July is not just another day. It is a dark day that remains as important to me as it is to all of those who will pop firecrackers before this weekend is over. However, I will never observe the Fourth of July as a celebration, as a time to reflect on our national freedoms. (I ain’t free. And you ain’t free either.) Rather, I will use it as a timeless reminder of how far we’ve yet to travel, how long still we must press forward to reach freedom’s door.
How can I celebrate freedom or independence (or whatever one should call this peculiar thing) when across the globe this very nation endorses terror and denies the freedoms of so many? How can I celebrate a day dedicated to freedom’s decadence when U.S. territories, such Puerto Rico, and major U.S. cities, such as Detroit, strive lowly in their debts, when austerity becomes conscript to racist and classist impulses, and when the vitriol of providence beacons transformative sobriety.
In this sobriety, we must acknowledge that there are various and complex forms of slavery still alive and active in our world today: human trafficking and the global sex trade; the lost Nigerian girls (whom we must always remember) and young men like Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray (whom we shall never forget). The very existence of continued suffering, further, makes the Fourth of July a lie.
There is also the Snowden revelations, which has given us some insight into a global campaign of civil surveillance. With eyes surrounding us, and with technologies that merit to men the vision of gods, we must ask on this July 4th: Are we free? Are we truly independent? Will we ever be?
Are we free when random churches in states across the U.S. south fall victim to unknown flames and racist murderers worship alongside the people they would later execute?
Are we free when little girls and boys must hide behind the prison of locked school doors, or play dead under bloodied pews in fear of a madman’s gun and the zeal he finds to exercise against innocence his Second Amendment Right—the right to kill even babies and unarmed civilians.
Are we free when, on city streets, rings of gunshots replace the productive noise of work, when jobs whisk away from places where people have no escape?
Are we free when we care more about convenience stores than the convenience of life?
And so Douglass asked: “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” Perhaps, we might ask—in the spirit of Douglass: What to the so-called free person is the Fourth of July when other persons—women, men, and children—are enslaved, broken between borders, and subsumed by the enmities of never-ending conquests?
Paulo Freire wrote:
While the problem of humanization has always, from an axiological point of view, been humankind’s central problem, it now takes on the character of an inescapable concern. Concern for humanization leads at once to the recognition of dehumanization, not only as an ontological possibility but as an historical reality.1
The Fourth of July must force us to address questions of Freire’s concept of humanization. It must compel us to finally tell the truth and, in so doing, recognize the various states of incompletion (i.e., dehumanization) in which we live. Incompletion is a corruption of independence, just as dehumanization is the consequence of a dependence irrevocably set in the shades of bondage. Here, as long as one is ensnared, we are all trapped. For if one is slave, then we are all enslaved—prisoners to slavery’s looming threat.
In this light, we must know, and we must teach, that the Fourth of July cannot be a day of celebration as long as there is at least one left to lament the unscalable obstacles of oppression that distances so many from achieving a fuller, truer and more complete humanity.
1. Freire, P. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Penguin Books, p. 25.
David E. Kirkland is an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. He is also the Executive Director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.