Civil Rights

Not Born on the 4th of July

By Ronald McKinley

When I was younger, I celebrated the 4 of July as all good Americans did. I lit strings of firecrackers. I burned sparklers. I ate hot dogs, corn on the cob. In New Orleans, where I was born I would go to the French Market and buy a large watermelon. One hundred years before my birth the same market sold slaves.

I was born eighty-five years after slavery was abolished. Slavery was abolished eighty-nine years after America got its independence. As an African-American, it took me long a time to understand the implications. My ancestors were not freed when America was freed.

In Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Maryland the fear of slaves on one hand, and the military potential of mobilizing slaves on the other, gave a peculiar twist to the logic of war. Virginia’s royal governor John Murry, the Earl of Dunmore, offered freedom to slaves.

“And I do here by further declare all indented servants, negroes, or others, appertaining to rebels, free that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining His Majesty’s troops as soon as maybe, for the most speedily reducing this colony to a proper sense of their duty to His Majesty’s Crown and Dignity.”

Dunmore’s proclamation triggered a mass escape. Lord Dunmore’s “Ethiopian Regiment” went to work pillaging patriot plantations, along the shores of the Chesapeake, to supply British ships with food. Some of the captured were put to death, some were sold up the river to slavers in the West Indies. Some were, at public expense, sent to work in western Virginia’s lead mines.

In Connecticut, the state with the largest slave population in New England, the legislature passed two important acts which paved the way for the recruitment of black soldiers: any men who procured a substitute would be exempt from the draft, and former masters who freed their slaves to serve in the Continental Army would be relieved of any future obligation for support. Any slave who agreed to serve would exempt both a master and his son. Whites who were drafted who did not own slaves often bought one. Some slaves were able to negotiate freedom as the price for their service. Some did not get this promise; however, others failed to get it in writing, and were pressed back into slavery.

The 4th of July is more than barbecue, hot dogs, and fireworks. “The Star Spangled Banner” should mean more than the opening of ball games. I want to be proud to be an American, even eighty-nine years after the fact. I have a higher standard for America. I live here. I give America my best, and want no less in return. Make America the true home of freedom, not more choices at the market, and two on the ballot. Put people before things. Make no man or woman a prisoner for thinking differently than you. Whole sections of America think we should imprison people for doing drugs. Deny adults who are not related the right to marry. Criminalize people without housing. Make corporations citizens. Bomb countries into the stone age. I try to be the America I want.

Make America the true home of freedom. Do no harm in speech or action to any living thing. Celebrate freedom from fear.

I have seen the auction block. I have been in the slave quarters. Do you feel free? Does Congress make you feel free? Does the Supreme Court make you feel free? Yes, we have a black president. Does he make you feel free?  b

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