Skye Latimer is a wife, toddler mom and the Director of Marketing at Folded Owl where she supports small businesses by consulting, training or managing their social media presence. She is a podcast lover, Enneagram 9 and works to bring in new businesses, beautify and increase tourism in historic Northeast 23rd in Oklahoma City with the East End Commercial District.
Growing up in New England the Fourth of July was truly a spectacle. Fireworks filled the skies of New York City, Baltimore and Philadelphia, which is where my love of fireworks began.
But there was always a dark cloud over the holiday that I couldn’t put my finger on as a child.
My aunt and uncle lived in rural Maryland where we would gather as a family and celebrate the occasion. I remember how odd it was that we always lit our sparklers and fireworks before it got dark and then hastily cleaned up before the sun set. I was just happy to get home in time to see the big fireworks on TV. It wasn’t until later I learned that my aunt and uncle lived in a so-called sundown town, where Black people were not welcome after dark.
I grew up celebrating the Fourth of July, but it wasn’t until college that I learned about Juneteenth, the holiday marking the emancipation of Black people who had been enslaved.
Imagine being so deprived of your history and culture that you didn’t know about a major historical holiday until your early twenties. If you’re reading this and you are white, you literally can’t. The colonizers, slave owners and confederate leaders of your ancestry all have holidays and statues for their “works”.
On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted in favor of independence, and two days later the 13 colonies adopted the Declaration of Independence to separate fully from Great Britain. We all know that story, but June 19, 1865, marks an equally important independence in this country. On that day, Union troops rode into Galveston Bay, Texas, and alerted the enslaved people there that they had been free for two and a half years by executive decree, known as the Emancipation Proclamation.
I can’t even fathom the worship and celebration that took place as some 250,000 people learned of their freedom.
Like many of you, I have fond memories of celebrating the Fourth of July by finding the perfect Old Navy American flag t-shirt and preparing meals with family. My celebration is not the same as yours, though. This is the day of your national independence and political freedom. It is pride and patriotism that allow white Americans to perpetually celebrate and remember the foundations their forefathers fought for.
I fully realize the hardships that came with that momentous task and it is because of their fundamental work that the nation stops to enthusiastically demonstrate with parades, concerts and fireworks, all for the love of nation.
But what, to the Black American, is the Fourth of July?
I celebrate my family who fought for this country and yet still do not receive the same rights and privileges as white Americans. Is it not astonishing that while we stand beside you, doing the same work, learning all the languages of white nations and figuring out the keys to the structural and systemic inequalities that colonizers built, that we must still prove that we are human? That we matter? That we are worthy of existing?
To your joy I still see and experience the pain of being a Black person in America. You hear the boom of fireworks, while I hear the boom of the shots fired into Philando Castille while pulling out paperwork for his registered firearm. You hear the shouts of celebration, while I hear the wails of immeasurable heartbreak from the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice. You paint your faces with red, white and blue, while communities continue to shout for an end to blood-stained streets like the one where Michael Brown was killed and laid uncovered for hours. You feel the lightness of chains being broken while we still bear the weight of institutional inequalities and disparities built on a system that saw my ancestors as only 3/5ths of a man.
Frederick Douglass said it like this in his 1852 address to the nation:
[July 4th] reveals to [the enslaved], 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 sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, 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 [barbarians]. 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.
One hundred and sixty-eight years later, Douglass’s speech still rings true.
It is 2020 and the consciousness of the world is awakening. I felt so seen by the declarations of many cities, businesses and celebrities amplifying the message of Juneteenth this year. The holiday carries us back to the day of our new freedom and great deliverance. It allows us to amplify the opportunities associated with the feeling and magnitude of that day when my ancestors began the fight for Reconstruction, an era of hope where enslaved people could immediately reunify with families ripped from us, establish schools, run for political office, push radical legislation and even sue slaveholders for compensation.
After more than 400 years of enslavement we deserve an equal celebration of this day where all can be inspired and empowered to transform this country for the better.