Article Originally Published July 4, 2018
My fondest childhood memories all happen in the summer. If I am even more specific, they’re all centered in the month of July. Fourth of July celebrations in my family were always a huge deal, mainly because our paternal matriarch, Great Grandmother Mattie, was born on that day in 1913. Her mother was born a slave, and her father was a member of the Cherokee tribe. I recall the parties being the most extravagant of all family gatherings, even Christmas and Thanksgiving. This is mainly because our extended family could travel in the summer and would come from near and far to celebrate my great grandmother’s birthday. My mother and grandmother worked tirelessly to make sure we had a new outfit, shoes and plenty of fireworks. We decorated the yard with American flags, stars, and everything was red, white and blue.
You might expect I assumed we were celebrating our independence. I did not, as a child, understand that the flag, stars and those colors, didn’t actually mean anything to my elders. My grandmother was doing her best to conform for our sake. There wasn’t going to be any way her grandbabies didn’t have what other people’s grandchildren had. She did her best to make sure we had the things society said we should.
For my matriarchs and elders of the family, the celebration had little to do with celebrating the independence of the country that had enslaved their mothers. It was about the life and legacy of my great grandmother. The other stuff was for us kids.
As I reflect on those times of jubilation, when my family converged on our Mississippi yard in west Jackson, I’m pressed to think now, that those celebrations are no more, of Fredrick Douglass’ timeless question, “What to the Negro is the Fourth of July?” I am pressed to especially think, “What to the Black woman is the Fourth of July?”
The current political and social climate often makes me long for the wisdom and security of my grandmothers. I remember, as a middle school student, asking my grandmother about Juneteenth. She said we’d never really seen freedom. It wasn’t until I was a college student and studying Fredrick Douglass’ celebrated oration that I began to understand her words. I sat in class wondering how daunting life is for people to never feel they’re a part of the only place they’ve known as home.
As I pen this, I too, hold many of those feelings. Imagine that: In 2018, a Black woman with an advanced degree, a husband, four children and her dream job, feels unattached, as if she doesn’t belong. I imagine many of the same feelings of women who were slaves, women who were sharecroppers, who lived in the Jim Crow south. I can imagine the distance from freedom women who couldn’t vote feel. Women who look like me and share so many of my realities can too. The everyday experiences of Black women in America prove the plight of the Black woman continues to get steeper, and more tiring. I find that my freedom to exist independently of all stereotypical roles is elusive, even today.
And so, hundreds of years after Douglass gave his speech in 1852 and certainly well after the country itself declared independence July 4, 1776, we are still asking, what to the Black girl is the fourth of July? Black girls continue to be one of society’s lost causes. Too often, we see Black girls handed harsher juvenile sentences than their white counterparts. Even in grade school, we see that punishments given to Black girls are harsher and more severe than their counterparts'. This could in part be due to America’s adultification of Black girls and the erasure of their childhood, which is caused by oppressive stereotypes and images. According to “Childhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood”, a 2017 study by Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality: “Beginning as early as 5 years of age, Black girls were more likely to be viewed as behaving and seeming older than their stated age; more knowledgeable about adult topics, including sex; and more likely to take on adult roles and responsibilities than what would have been expected for their age.” Five. years. old.
The study goes on to state the adultification peaks at around 14 for Black girls and continues through age 19. We must ask ourselves, how Black girls feel about freedom. How does this annual celebration of freedom include their plight? How does this country allow such a transgression against innocent children? What to the Black woman is the Fourth of July?
Daily, Black women are faced with the burden of resisting and revolting against microaggressions. So rarely are we allowed to just be. We are questioned about the way we wear our hair, our skin tones, how we dress. In some instances, when a professional Black woman gives a dissenting opinion during a planning meeting, she is seen as problematic. When a Black woman shares a passionate proposal or idea about something, she is seen as pushy. All of these negative reactions are thrown at Black women on a near daily basis, which puts our livelihoods in immediate danger.
Black women are constantly forced to find and implement non-prescriptive resistance in an effort to maintain our daily obligations. At first look, these examples may seem like irksome workplace differences. However, to many Black women, the continuous correction of microaggressive behaviors from co-workers causes stress and anxiety that shows up in the form of panic attacks, headaches and other physical ailments. In response to this, far too many of us are not free to respond with how we feel, for fear of being called the angry black woman (or worse).
Because the Black woman’s work is unremittingly devalued across many different occupations, her freedom seems farther away as time creeps on.
And yet, we are still expected by society to do what my grandmother did: conform while celebrating the freedom of others.
And just as Douglass left his onlookers with a litany of questions regarding the irony of the occasion in which he gave his famous speech, I also ask you to ponder these ideas. So what to the Black woman is the Fourth of July? Where is the freedom for the Black girl to remain a child and not be forced to grow up too fast? Where is the freedom for the Black woman worker to express her feelings at a job (she probably went into debt to obtain an education to be qualified for) without fear of repercussions? Where is her freedom to leave an inheritance for her children, instead of being an eventual burden on them? Where is the freedom, today, for the Black woman, when in so many areas she continues to be silenced and oppressed? When will we get our Fourth of July? Because like my grandmother said, “We ain’t never seen the real one yet.”