“What, to the [enslaved and colonized], is your Fourth of July?”— Frederick Douglass
On US Independence Day, for years it has been an African American custom to circulate the poignant speech—widely known as “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”—by self-emancipated abolitionist Frederick Douglass.* His iconic oratory points out the stark contrast between America’s exaltation of self-determination through words and its actions of violence, false imprisonment, cultural imperialism, and other human rights violations to block African Americans from having the power necessary to shape their own destinies. Since before Douglass’s time, Black people in the United States and Africa have rebelled against the infantilizing nature of White supremacy by fighting to claim a fair share of the wealth their labor and cultures produce. As revealed in my new book, Love for Liberation: African Independence, Black Power, and a Diaspora Underground, part of what unites Black communities on both sides of the Atlantic is a consensus that the key to protecting Black lives is Black autonomy.
In his speech to a predominately White audience in 1852, Douglass stated plainly that the “rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not me . . . I shall see this day from the [enslaved’s] point of view.” While slyly pointing out the intersection between patriarchy, capitalism, and racism in America, he also highlighted a recurring theme in Black cultures throughout the diaspora: authenticity’s valor versus hypocrisy’s disgrace. American, British, and French empires have all waved the flags of self-determination in public while, for example, turning a blind eye to the mass rape of Black women during slavery. Douglass’s assertion that a nation’s democratic self-image can only be validated by its most marginalized community members became a core belief of the Black freedom struggle in the United States and abroad.
Just over a hundred years after Douglass confronted his audience, anti-colonial activist and former political prisoner Kwame Nkrumah celebrated the hard-won independence of his country, Ghana. During the festivities, which were attended by prominent African Americans, including Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Mrs. Coretta Scott King, Nkrumah encouraged the Ashanti, Ewe, and other tribes in his homeland to see themselves as a shining example of a new era in the diaspora: “From now on there is a new African in the world [who] is ready to fight his own battle and show that, after all, the Black man is capable of managing his own affairs.”
The wave of African independence in the mid-twentieth century—and its accompanying critique of the two-faced nature of colonizing White supremacist institutions—profoundly influenced an upstart generation of African American activists. Malcolm X, Kathleen Neal Cleaver, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) were just a few of the Black Power movement leaders who were frustrated by the slow pace of progress toward racial equality. At the heart of their exasperation was the glaring divergence between American institutions’ stated values of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and their willingness to enable the lynching, disenfranchisement, and economic exploitation of African Americans. As a result, Black Power activists began to seek alternatives to the changing hearts-and-minds strategy advanced by Dr. King.
Reaching out across borders, Black Power and African independence activists connected within a diaspora underground. A diaspora underground consists of the physical emancipated spaces in which activists engage and the shared understandings of the past, present, and future that are created in such spaces. This kind of international engagement helps Black activists dismantle dominant gaslighting myths about the benevolence of White supremacy and colonialism. In this diaspora underground, Black Power and African independence leaders were able to ground themselves in an authentic vision of paths toward autonomy and full enjoyment of human rights that they themselves could construct. They discovered a deeper understanding of their roots as well as routes toward liberation that did not depend on changing White hearts and minds.
During his speech, Douglass asked the rhetorical question, “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” He responded, “A thin veil to cover up crimes.” Revealing the truth about White supremacist aggression has been part of the continuous work of the Black freedom struggle from Douglass, to African independence and Black Power, to Black Lives Matter. Through the affirmation of authenticity’s valor over hypocrisy’s disgrace, the Fourth of July has also become an opportunity to reflect on the rights Black communities have to assert autonomy over their own bodies, relationships, neighborhoods, and nations. This kind of Black self-determination, which can be nurtured from within, remains the true meaning of independence.
*The original title of this speech is “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro.”
Robin J. Hayes, PhD, is a contributor to the Atlantic, writer and director of the award-winning documentary Black and Cuba, and creative director of Progressive Pupil.