July 4, 2011 Washington, DC
To be in Washington, DC on July 4th–and to be surrounded by the monuments and documents of American government–is to be at the center of the nation’s commemoration of the 1776 Declaration of Independence. Today we celebrate with parades and picnics, but 235 years ago the colonists were serious–and not particularly festive–as they presented their grievances against the tyranny of the King of England.
I heard the first fireworks in my neighborhood two nights ago and have been eating barbecue and hot dogs all weekend. I love a parade and I admit I am sentimental for the kind of patriotism that celebrates World War II veterans like my dad and embraces recent immigrants who still believe in the American dream.
But to be black and a woman complicates the day. I’m armed with the knowledge that America would not be America without the contributions of women and people of color. I’m also aware that those contributions were erased and diminished for decades.
Regardless of what anyone says, I believe I am entitled to claim America as mine and to believe, as Langston Hughes wrote, that “I, too sing America.” Still, I never get through an Independence Day without thinking of these words from abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s (1817-1895):
“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 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 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.”
I always am moved by these powerful, eloquent words, but I also know neither Douglass nor America stood still. Slavery was abolished a little more than a decade after this 1852 speech and the oppression Douglass endured did not prevent him from having the gumption to publish the North Star, his anti-slavery newspaper, from 1847 to 1860. Among other things, he was appointed U. S. minister and consul general to Haiti from 1889 to 1891. Being named president of the Freedman’s Bank did not diminish his fire. He advised Abraham Lincoln and continued to challenge the status quo. Today his descendants are advocates for international human rights at the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation. [Click here for Danny Glover’s reading of the speech.]
These facts about Frederick Douglass and America’s legacy of slavery I can’t forget. But today, when I attended the July 4th ceremony at the National Archives in Washington, DC–and heard the reading of the Declaration of Independence and viewed the original U. S. Constitution–I also learned something new from the many re-enactors who strolled through the Archives Rotunda. The actor who portrays George Washington told me he is researching and exploring the relationship between America’s first president and his enslaved valet, William Lee, because he wants to know more about what clearly was an intimate interaction between the two men.
I truly was intrigued by the stories of Edward “Ned” Hector and John Rollison, the two black men who mingled in the halls of the Archives with Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Abigail Adams, John Hancock and Benjamin Franklin.
Ned Hector (1743-1834), a freeman and a teamster who drove gunpowder in his wagon for Continental Army cannons, fought in the Battle of Brandywine and Germantown. After helping stave off the British, he is quoted as saying, “They shall not have my team! I will save my horses or perish myself!” Today his legacy is kept alive by Noah Lewis.
I also “met” John Rollison (1723 -1780)–wealthy free man of color, shoemaker and landowner in Williamsburg, VA–who provided supplies for Navy and militia troops. Today actor James Cameron portrays him with unflagging dignity.
As this day ends and as I get ready to watch the fireworks, I can’t help but think of Ishmael Roberts (1755-1827) and Thomas Archie (born 1730/aka Archer), my two great-great-great-great-great-grandfathers who served as Continental Army soldiers in Colonel Abraham Sheppard’s Tenth North Carolina Regiment at Valley Forge.
I’m indebted to the late Coy Robbins, a genealogist who told me of my connection to these two American patriots, whose descendants helped found the Roberts Settlement in Indiana in the 1830s. Members of my family have lived in the state since then.
America’s history is complicated. For centuries the stories of women and people of color have been intentionally overlooked and obscured. While black historians and women historians have known these stories for a very long time, it is only within the last few decades that they have begun to be included in our nation’s wider narrative. The documentation is there for those of us with the energy and the inclination to find it. The stories must be told.