Lecrae created a bit of a firestorm on twitter when he posted this picture with the caption:
“My ancestors on the fourth of July 1776”
This post caused a bit of an uproar because Lecrae is supposed to be the one rapper all evangelicals can love. Many were hurt, but for me this was not at all surprising. This picture is just another form of a post that comes up quite often on my social media feed on the 4th of July.
In the past, Frederick Douglas has been the patron saint of “woke fourth of July.” People love to recall that powerful speech he gave on July 5, 1852. It is popularly known as, “What to a slave is the fourth of July.” In it Douglas wrote:
I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.—The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.
Douglas’s point was straightforward. To the descendants of the slaves, the fourth of July reminded them of the freedom they did not have in 1776.
But many wonder why people feel the need to mention this now when slavery is over and America seems to have made so much progress? Lecrae’s post (and others) appear to be motivated by two realities. First, they want to challenge simple narratives in which our founding fathers were saints who built America upon principles of freedom and equality. This is a false, or at least incomplete, telling of our story. Our founding fathers, for all the good they did, were flawed. It should not be controversial to find it somewhat problematic that they declared that all men were created equal while at the same time owning their fellow brothers and sisters. On a day dedicated to memory is it really improper to remember the whole story? The second reason people post pictures like the one above is to remind Americans that despite the fact that we have made progress there is still work to do. Put differently, folks speak about slavery on the fourth of July to bring to mind the fact that America will only be truly American when there is real liberty and justice for all.
People who get offended at pictures like the one above often fail to realize that the critique is not of the Declaration of Independence but the inadequacy of its implementation. Lecrae and others talk about slavery on the fourth in the hope that the declaration we celebrate will one day be true. Thus, in making this critique, Lecrae joined a long tradition of blacks who based their hope for America on its own founding documents. For example, Martin Luther King addressed this same issue in his famous I have a dream speech, which is lauded more often than it is read in its entirety. He wrote:
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Lecrae and those who critique America are not being less American on the fourth of July. They are are being more faithful to America’s ideals than those who would refuse to remember. They are, at their best, expressing hope that our country can handle hard truths and be a better nation for it. In doing so, they are not so far from that great American Frederick Douglas, who despite his strong words of condemnation had hope for this country. Douglas based this hope, in part, upon our youth (America was some 76 years old at his writing). He said:
you are, even now, only in the beginning of your national career, still lingering in the period of childhood. I repeat, I am glad this is so. There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon. The eye of the reformer is met with angry flashes, portending disastrous times; but his heart may well beat lighter at the thought that America is young, and that she is still in the impressible stage of her existence. May he not hope that high lessons of wisdom, of justice and of truth, will yet give direction to her destiny? Were the nation older, the patriot’s heart might be sadder, and the reformer’s brow heavier. Its future might be shrouded in gloom, and the hope of its prophets go out in sorrow. There is consolation in the thought, that America is young…
Is there, then, still hope to be found in the fact that some 240 years on America is still in its infancy (we are indeed young for a country. If you do not believe me, visit England). I think that there is. I think that there is hope in the principles of our founding documents (see MLK) and there is hope in our youth (see Frederick Douglas). Thus, I propose that on the 4th of July we learn to do three things at once: (1) remember in truth what we were in 1776; (2) celebrate how far we have come; (3) acknowledge that real work still remains for this generation. Oh and one more thing: enjoy some good BBQ and a day off.