Trails of smoke

Cal in Color

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I love fireworks, but I’ve always found them a bit ironic. Upon first glance, they’re the most beautiful thing you’d ever see: They light up the sky in brilliant, shimmering colors. But as they fade, you’re left staring at faint remnants of smoke, breathing in gunpowder, and attempting to find your way home in the dark. 

That’s how my family and I marked the Fourth of July: We got to watch fireworks. But every time we’d wait for the next firework, we’d catch a glimpse of each other in the moonlight between the smoke and feel something we always knew was there: that tinge of sadness. What did we, a Black family, have to celebrate about America?

This question has been the subtext of each Fourth of July for as long as I can remember, but I never really considered its implications until I was a junior in college. If I regret one thing about my time at UC Berkeley, it is spending a semester of junior year trying to double major in English — even if I answered lots of questions in the process. I loved the readings (my bookshelf made me look much better read than I actually am), but taking apart every single word of a text was a level of intimacy I was not ready to commit to. My Fourth of July answers were, however, a silver lining that came from an assignment to read Frederick Douglass’ speech-turned-essay, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Even before reading it, I guessed his sentiments would be all too familiar. 

Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?” Douglass asks. “And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?”

The celebration of independence only reveals the amount of distance between two different versions of America. Thinking back, I was always aware of this division, and I so desperately wanted to fit in amid the intense pressure to celebrate the greatness of America’s freedoms. Even in elementary school, I had a teacher make a comment to our third-grade class on the verge of recess about how lucky we were to be born in America — a rather peculiar thing to say to a bunch of Goldfish-deprived kids. 

But being Black in America never really meant freedom, and as Douglass said, we were not included in the white experience of our nation’s birthday. It should come as no surprise that there is a disconnect between America and its Black citizens, and with the recent unrest around the country, many white Americans are finally asking themselves why. 

The rise in popularity of Juneteenth exposes what many Black Americans already know: The only “freedom” granted on July 4, 1776, was the monetary freedom of white British men from the tyrannical seizure of taxes by the British king. Everyone else remained either enslaved or subjected to the patriarchal regime. The only people who have something to celebrate are straight white men, and such ahistorical celebrations ignore the real, racialized, exclusive history of the country. 

When drafting the constitution, Black individuals only represented three-fifths of a person. Slavery did not end in America until 1863, and even then, Black people were not considered human. The mere abolition of slavery barely sounds like the beginning of freedom to me — even to this day, many BIPOC fight every day for their basic human rights. 

The privilege of patriotism is a luxury that Black Americans cannot afford. America prides itself on democracy and freedom, and yet treats its BIPOC as second class. America itself is a contradiction, and while flags are waved in our faces with the promise of freedom and equality, new cases of police brutality or systemic racism are exposed daily in the media. 

The idea of patriotism in America is actually closer to nationalism, an exclusionary practice that only benefits the privileged, the rich, and the white. It’s the ideology of who and what represents a country, with narrow borders around our notion of community, and it champions processes of exclusion and degradation. 

What’s uniquely American, however, is the specific rhetoric that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps — out of poverty, racism, and inequity. And the concept that marginalized groups must “earn” their human rights is a way to gatekeep wealth and privilege while pretending to live in a just society where anything is possible and opportunity is equal.

To ask those still suffering from this country’s legacy to celebrate freedom without taking the necessary actions to address our enduring injustices is a cruel fate — and that’s what being Black on the Fourth of July is like. While white Americans can trace their ancestry back to those founding principles of purported freedom, my ancestors were somewhere in chains. White men got the fireworks, and all we were left with were trails of smoke.

Savon Bardell writes the Friday column on the experience of being a Black student at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]