This is a republished article from BPI Chicago's Blog by Marsheda Patrice, Esq. It was originally published in the Summer of 2020.
On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass gave his prolific oration, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” in which he spoke to the values that the Founding Fathers aspired to––and how the country continued to fall short of those ideals as they relate to the treatment of Black people and the ongoing stain of slavery. He spoke to the irony and insult of being asked to speak on a holiday that did not consider his humanity, as if he too were supposed to celebrate America’s fiction of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.
July 5, 2020, exactly 168 years later I find myself at my desk contemplating a similar, though slightly different question: What to the Black advocate is the Fourth of July? More specifically, what is the Fourth of July to this Black advocate?
I have known that I wanted to become a lawyer since the fifth grade. Ms. Wickman, my homeroom teacher, had taught an entire Social Studies section on America’s founding. We discussed the Mayflower Compact. We read about the Boston Tea Party. We studied the Declaration of Independence. We dove into the Bill of Rights. Hearing what I once thought were infallible truths of this nation, but now know are mere aspirations, I fell in love with the Constitution and the mirage of the history that went into producing it. I did not connect that part of that story included the ransacking of indigenous people or the enslavement of my ancestors. Yes, I knew about slavery and the devastation of indigenous nations, but somehow America’s founding stood apart as if it was not tainted by the truth.
So here I sit, realizing that I pursued a dream based on flat-out lies and wishful thinking. I sit in the midst of an uprising and pandemic that is disproportionately ravishing my community because of this nation’s unchecked racism. I sit here wondering if I made the correct decision. Why am I advocating for a nation’s conscience when it does not see me and the folks who look like me as human? Why do we even have to say Black lives matter? It is insulting that there needs to be a movement in order for Black people to be seen as human. That somehow saying my life matters is a controversial statement. Yet as a lawyer and officer of the court, I am charged with upholding laws that are based on a document that claims me, neither in my Blackness nor in my womanhood. It is a heinous proposition to have to argue that police officers should not kill people, that we should not put humans in cages, that we should not throw away people, souls as if they can be reduced to what was likely the worst moment of their lives.
168 years later and what real progress have we made?
To be a Black advocate is to become the manifestation of James Baldwin’s sentiment that “[t]o be a Negro in this country and be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
I am angry that I am expected to celebrate being duped into believing that this nation included me and my people in its definition of people, rather than excluding us as brutes only able to bestow free labor, be it through our culture, service, or bondage. I am hurt that I have to say Black lives matter when it should be an undeniable truth. I am tired because… I mean …
The exhaustion transcends my body: it hits my soul, travels to my spirit, and just sits. So where does this barely-there Black advocate go from here?
As I contemplate the answer, I am reminded of Audre Lorde’s statement in A Burst of Light and Other Essays: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” I am reminded that Black joy is just as important as, if not more so than, Black pain.
Black joy is just as important as, if not more than, Black pain.
This year, through my work with the Illinois Coalition for Higher Education in Prison (IL-CHEP), I coordinated and celebrated Juneteenth with other young Chicago-based Black and brown advocates. For the first time in my policy career, I was able to work in a predominantly young Black space with organizations that I had admired as a law student, organizations like the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), and Black Lives Matter Chicago. I was introduced to the Let Us Breathe Collective and learned more about Party-Noire and Chicago Votes. Within a week, through numerous Zoom calls, intense text threads, and one-on-one phone conversations we pulled together an intentional Black function, a celebration of melanin.
Working in a space where I did not have to over-explain or monitor my words for fear that I’d scare listeners with my justified anger, where laughter was just as necessary as the substance, where I saw a visual representation of all expressions of Blackness as beautiful, and where “get it done, no excuses” was not just a motto but a lifestyle was nourishing and energizing.
The event itself brought even more healing. From grounding chants, speeches, poetry, and live music, to free food and live DJ sets, the day was filled with Black joy. It acted as a communal, though deeply personal form of self-care.
As I reflect on the day, I am still in awe of how quickly we were able to pull the event together, simply because we were acting with the same collective will: we wanted an unapologetically Black celebration of our existence, our existence in Blackness. It was our true Independence Day. Where advocating for systemic change was carries the battle cry of “Black lives matter,” this process felt like and was the affirmation that our existence is more than enough, it is a gift. I needed that reminder. I constantly need that reminder. To be a Black advocate is to recognize the need to heal in the community.
Lastly, what felt even better was that planning and attending this event was not some side project that I had to do in addition to my work––it was my work. My self-work had manifested as my “work work.” So often as Black advocates, or as advocates of color more generally, we are asked to compartmentalize and assimilate into racist systems, as if we are not personally impacted by the issues we fight.
I will not pretend that my experience with Juneteenth outweighs the reality that America has fallen short and continues to be abysmally incompetent in actualizing its promises. But it evokes two key takeaways:
(1) Black joy is just as important as, if not more so than Black pain. As Black advocates, we get to have joy. But We just have to be intentional about seizing it.
(2) Choosing to bring all of yourself to your work is not only a form of self-care, but it is also in itself resistance.
What to the Black advocate is the Fourth of July? To that I answer: it is to be pissed, exhausted, but undefeated.