Fourth of July and the Cancel Culture

Is the Fourth of July the next to go?

Posted Jul 03, 2020

While we struggle with the proper way to socialize around Fourth of July celebrations because of COVID-19, there are questions about what it is that we celebrate. Statues are dismantled, torn down, or moved and there is a reassessment of once-venerated and heroic figures.

So what is it, exactly, that is being celebrated with fireworks and hamburgers? In part, it is the declaration of independence from Great Britain. But the holiday is also meant to honor the document to which people put their signatures and therefore their fortunes and their lives on the line.

The first sentence of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence is arguably as well-known as any sentence in the world. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It has served as the clarion call for those seeking freedom and it holds up an ideal that touches the core of what it means to be human.

Shouldn’t every American take pride on this American holiday? Not everyone does today and not everyone has in the past.

In fact, celebrating the colonies’ revolt against the mother country has been contested by blacks in America since the founding of this country. One gap in America’s consciousness is that approximately 3,000 Black Loyalists left on British ships for Canada at the end of the Revolutionary War, mainly formerly enslaved people who chose the British side because it was they who gave them freedom, not the patriots, many of whom were slaveholders.

A similar picture emerged during the second war with Great Britain. Here is an excerpt from my novel, Where We Started, that is based on real events in 1812.

“Frank preached on Freedom Day. The yearly occasion, on the 1st of January, marked the anniversary of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade five years earlier. Since blacks were excluded from participating in the Independence Day commemorations, slaves and free men and women from Delaware to New England shunned Fourth of July as a white man’s holiday.”

While Freedom Day had dropped from importance as a celebration in the African American community, July Fourth remained problematic for many before the Civil War, as this passage by Black abolitionist William Whipper makes clear. “Though the right to be free has been deemed inalienable by this nation, from a period antecedent to the Declaration of Independence, yet a mental fog hovered over this nation on the subject of slavery that had well-nigh sealed her doom, were it not that in the Providence of God a few noble spirits arose in the might of moral power to her rescue.”

And this, which some have said is the most moving passage from all of Frederick Douglass’s speeches:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”

Fourth of July can be looked at as an expression of our highest ideals but ideals that are not realized. All people are born equal—except for the wealthy, who are more equal than others. All people are born equal—but may not be treated as such if their skin isn’t the right color or their sexual identity isn’t the norm.

In all this, I am reminded of the British novelist E. M. Forster, a closeted homosexual, who wrote a defense of democratic society in the face of the Nazi onslaught in a book entitled Two Cheers for Democracy.

So, too, with the Fourth of July. Two cheers for the holiday. It may not deserve a third cheer—not yet. But the ideal is the best we’ve got.