My Fourth of July ritual includes re-reading Frederick Douglass’ speech “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?”
In 1852, the famous escaped slave-turned-orator delivered the scorcher of a speech, which slammed American courts, northern financiers, churches and cowardly politicians. He told them celebrations of American independence from British tyranny amid black degradation, enslavement and suffering was a sham. To the slave, he said, July Fourth was a scam, “mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”
Given recent events at the U.S. southern border, Douglass’ words continue to ring true. “There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”
Since returning from a trip to London, I have added another work to my personal canon of literature that expresses the complicated relationship black people have with patriotism throughout the African diaspora.
In Winsome Pinnock’s brilliant play “Leave Taking,” which recently ended a run at London’s Bush Theatre, we meet a middle-aged man named Broderick living in 1980s London. He has spent his whole life believing himself to be a British subject: He has waved the Union Jack on Empire Day and has tipped his hat at the image of The Queen since his childhood in his native Jamaica. Broderick, like other Caribbean immigrants of the Windrush Generations, has made a home in the city as a Commonwealth national. With the passage of the British Nationality Act 1948, many West Indian immigrants found employment helping rebuild England after World War II.
But then, the British government sent him a letter breaking the news: He was actually an “alien,” and he needed to pay a fee to prove his nationality. His childhood friend takes this news in stride. “So we pay the fifty pounds and now we nationality secure,” she says.
“Secure what?” he balks. “Till them change them mind again?” Then he kisses his teeth.
To the slave, Douglass said, the July Fourth was a scam.
Though the play debuted in 1987, it has resonated in the U.K. in recent years, especially since the revelation of “Windrush Scandal.”
New reports have shown that harsh policies turned the U.K. into a “hostile environment” for immigrants, transforming virtually every branch of the British bureaucracy into an arm of immigration enforcement. Thanks to spurious, often racially motivated, suspicions that people were in the country illegally, dozens of elderly Caribbean immigrants from that generation, like the fictional Broderick, were swept up in a dragnet raid. They had had every reason to feel secure in their identity, but they were stripped of their jobs, their property and in some cases, sent back to countries in which they had never lived.
Of course, it’s not only in the U.K. that black people feel the tension between love of country and hate at the hands of that same country. Broderick’s dilemma is familiar to those living in Brazil, where wealthy landowners and government officials routinely trample over the land and cultural rights of African descendants. It echoes the plight of black people living on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, where the Dominican Republic government stripped citizenship from 200,000 black workers of Haitian descent in a 2015 purge. And it’s familiar here in the United States, where the first president of African descent was pressured ― largely by the bigoted white man who would succeed him ― to show his birth certificate, in what will forever be a disgraceful blot on American history.
In the United States, black people of all backgrounds live under the constant threat of white people summoning the police state to tell us we don’t belong. They charge us with what has been called “Living While Black:” selling water, walking our babies, playing our music, mowing the lawn or barbequing. All of these things put us at risk of being thrown in jail indefinitely or having our lives stolen by police. Studies suggest that while black immigrants are less likely than other groups to be undocumented, they are still more likely to be arrested, jailed and deported due to racial profiling.
How do we respond? If you are the disproportionate numbers of black women and men serving in the U.S. military or if you are California Rep. Maxine Waters (D) who dared racists to “shoot straight,” you offer to put your actual body on the line for your country. Even then, the gap between America’s promise and its reality causes a level of toxic stress that is literally making black people sick.
The fictional Broderick drinks his problems away. The play’s other main characters turn to traditional healers, or “obeah” women, for help coping. “It not easy to turn you back on one country and start fresh in foreign,” explains Mai, the Jamaican healer living in London. “It mash up you life.”
Later, she continues: “You think things would change by now. My grandfather’s grandfather came from Jamaica in the hold of a ship. My mother did run away to Cuba in the twenties to cut cane, and I came here. It must be some kinda curse that condemns our people to wander the earth like ghosts who can’t find rest.”
Xenophobia still reigns in Europe. Black Brits that I spoke to fretted about Brexit and the fledgling Make Britain Great Again movement, which is inspired by America’s own flourishing anti-immigrant leadership. An outcry over the Windrush scandal chastened U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, and she made a full-throated apology, announcing the formation of a commission to make things right.
I can only admire a country whose political system still holds a capacity for shame. It took more than another decade, a Civil War and unthinkable bloodshed for America to heed Douglass’ words: “Be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster.”
On this American Independence Day, and in the months ahead, I am eager to see what human compassion and shame America has left, and how effective it will be in righting the ship. Mostly, I’m kissing my teeth.
Natalie Hopkinson is the author most recently of A Mouth is Always Muzzled: Six Dissidents, Five Continents, and the Art of Resistance.