The complicated meanings of the July 4th holiday have been glaringly obvious for Black Americans for a couple of hundred years, but hidden and ignored for the most part by white Americans. The holiday is celebrated in the United States to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which declared the 13 original British colonies on the North American continent free from British rule. For many Americans, people of color and white alike, the practical reality of the holiday simply means summer picnics, barbeques, family gatherings – an official “paid” holiday!
The document that the holiday celebrates starts with the oft-quoted sentence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript
However, all of the signers of the declaration were white, of European ancestry, and the majority of the signers of the declaration (and 4 of the first 5 Presidents) were slave owners. Slavery was protected by law in all 13 colonies. Enslaved people of African descent were not considered whole persons. In counting the population of an area for purposes of representation in Congress, the founders considered simply not counting the slaves at all. In reaching a compromise with those who favored counting slaves in order to increase their representation in Congress, the founders established a 3/5th rule – for every 5 actual enslaved people, the official population count would reflect only 3.
I am drawn to turn a laser gaze on this human travesty on this day because of our insistence, as nurses and in nursing, that the concept of “person” is one of our metaparadigm concepts, and our claim that our practice is “person-centered.” Note that in my memory, the concept of “person” in nursing theories and nursing textbooks was once termed “man.” Feminist activists and advocates challenged the gender-specific term “man” as inclusive of all genders; hence the current use of the term “person” or “human” – terms fraught today by the fact that Black and Brown people remain constrained by the travesty of racism, the denial of person-hood, and serious disparities and injustices perpetrated by legal, political, and cultural norms.
Where we are today has deep roots in history. It was not until 1863 that President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery, granting freedom for enslaved people. However, the news of freedom was delayed for those in Texas, who only learned of their freedom on June 19th 1865, now an official U.S. federal holiday celebrated annually on June 19th. Tragically, the abolishment of slavery was a not a magic cure for the ills of racial injustice. The ongoing fight for racial justice and equity has continued, through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, through the public murder of George Floyd, and the many other atrocities still today committed against Black, Brown and all people of color. The social injustices that remain as remnants of persistent racial injustice is unrelenting, and call for unrelenting activism.
Throughout the 1800s, Black Americans used July Fourth to argue for emancipation and full citizenship, making the case that Black citizens – free and enslaved – had as much right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as white people. The words of African American activist and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, provide a stark reminder of the well established and ongoing injustices rooted in the travesty of slavery. On July 5, 1852, a few years before the start of the American Civil War (April 12, 1861 – May 26, 1865), Frederick Douglass was invited by the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society to give a Fourth of July lecture he titled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” In this speech Douglass acknowledged the merits and courage demonstrated by the white men who wrote and signed the declaration of independence, but delivered a grim reminder of the continued enslavement of millions of people.
“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth 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 sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; 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 these United States, at this very hour.”https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/speeches-african-american-history/1852-frederick-douglass-what-slave-fourth-july/
Almost 250 years have passed since the signing of the declaration of independence that claimed equality and unalienable rights for all, and over 150 since Frederick Douglass delivered his powerful fourth of July speech, and the brutality of the Civil War. We are now experiencing an awakening of activism that is required if we are ever to right the wrongs of racial injustice. There is renewed recognition that the effects of slavery continue to influence daily life for all Americans, and many more around the globe who have similar histories of enslavement even though “official” laws and life-ways prohibit or deny slavery. Historical trauma takes many forms, but the traumas that are wrapped up with racism are particularly and tragically alive and well. In the landmark book “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome,” Dr. Joy DeGruy admonishes all of us to face the disastrous influence of slavery in order to understand the enormity of the crime and commit to healing the trauma suffered by descendents of people who were enslaved.
In nursing if we are to live up to our claim that “person” is among the most cherished of concepts for our discipline, we have a duty to confront our own complicated history with race and racism; to acknowledge the ways in which we, as individuals and as a discipline do or do not embrace the full humanity and personhood of each and every individual. Our project “Overdue Reckoning on Racism in Nursing” is an effort that we believe is making a difference for many who participate. But the challenge is beyond what can be met by a few efforts here and there. So my invitation to you for this complicated holiday, is to do whatever you need to do to engage in your own learning, your own actions. Join us in renewing our commitments to personal knowing: “I know what I do, and I do what I know” as we continue our own personal anti-racism journeys.