Independence Has Always Been a Day Late and a Dollar Short for Black People, But Schools Can Change That

Jun 15, 2023 6:46:08 PM


What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? Frederick Douglass

On June 19, 1865, two years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing (only) some of the enslaved, Union Major General Gordon Granger, rode into Galveston, Texas and announced:

The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection therefore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.

It should be noted that by the time this happened, Lincoln was dead, and even after this second announcement of the abolition of slavery, plenty of Black people continued to be whipped, murdered and enslaved. While many Black people celebrate Juneteenth as Emancipation Day, many other Americans have never heard of it and consider July 4 to serve as an Independence Day for all.

Addressing New York abolitionist, Frederick Douglass asked, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” His answer illuminates what many Black people continue to feel today:

[It is] 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...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.

There are so many vital aspects of American history that is unknown, ignored and downplayed—especially when it comes to the oppression or contributions of Black folks. In a recent Vox article, “Why Celebrating Juneteenth Is More Important Now Than Ever”, P.R. Lockhart explains:

In many ways, Juneteenth represents how freedom and justice in the US has always been delayed for black people. The decades after the end of the war would see a wave of lynching, imprisonment, and Jim Crow laws take root. What followed was the disproportionate impact of mass incarceration, discriminatory housing policies, and a lack of economic investment. And now, as national attention remain focused on acts of police violence and various racial profiling incidents, it is clear that while progress has been made in black America’s 150 years out of bondage, considerable barriers continue to impede that progress. Those barriers may remain until America truly begins to grapple with its history.

Exposing America’s Original Sins

While the legacy of slavery is still very much alive and kicking in this country, we can start to address America’s original sins (slavery is not the only one) by authentically grappling with these necessary conversations. Ignoring, downplaying or being wholly ignorant of these facts exacerbates the problem. Schools can play vital roles in ensuring students—all students—have a deeper understanding of the very resilience Black people have demonstrated against the deep, institutionalized brutality and oppression they have faced.

If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, that's not progress. If you pull it all the way out, that's not progress. The progress comes from healing the wound that the blow made. They haven't even begun to pull the knife out. They won't even admit the knife is there. — Malcolm X 

Teaching true history is also a way to combat notions of white supremacy and will also serve to confront white privilege based on the enslavement of others. Taking steps like the Legacy Museum in Alabama that chronicles the peculiar habit of the American government bystanding while Black people were brutalized and murdered is a start. Recently, Charleston, South Carolina formally apologized for the enslavement and brutalization of Black people—almost 40 percent of whom came through South Carolina. But, it can’t stop there. We already know that such proclamations aren’t worth the paper they are written on. Unless policies are enacted and enforced to address the original wrongs and the inevitable aftermath that ensued, words ring hollow and the impact of the oppression endures perpetually. Malcolm X spoke about America’s oppression and the willful neglect to actually work on healing:

"If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, that's not progress. If you pull it all the way out, that's not progress. The progress comes from healing the wound that the blow made. They haven't even begun to pull the knife out. They won't even admit the knife is there." 


Reparations should be two-fold; it should obviously seek to provide justice to Black people and other folks of color. But, reparations should also include addressing the mis-education of generations of white people. Schools can take a lead on this. "We don’t need to just celebrate Juneteenth, educators need to teach it. Let nary another generation before us be ignorant of this monumental event. Once we confront America’s many “original sins,” we can start to address the tributaries that were unleashed because of America’s unquenchable thirst for the oppression of others. While we are teaching all students (not just Black kids) about Juneteenth, let’s be sure to teach what independence actually means—who has it today and who has historically had it and denied others. If students can see a clear picture of how information is not shared and can be used to oppress others, we may have far more justice-minded graduates.

Schools can’t do it alone, but they can ensure that everyone, especially white children, understand that there is a knife still protruding from the backs of Black folks in America and beyond.


Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the Founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development. The Center exists to ensure there will be equity in the recruiting, training, hiring, and retention of quality educators that reflect the cultural backgrounds and share common socio-political interests of the students they serve. The Center is developing a nationally relevant model to measurably increase teacher diversity and support Black educators through four pillars: Professional learning, Pipeline, Policies and Pedagogy. So far, the Center has developed ongoing and direct professional learning and coaching opportunities for Black teachers and other educators serving students of color. The Center also carries forth the freedom or liberation school legacy by hosting a Freedom School that incorporates research-based curricula and exposes high school and college students to the teaching profession to help fuel a pipeline of Black educators. Prior to founding the Center, El-Mekki served as a nationally recognized principal and U.S. Department of Education Principal Ambassador Fellow. El-Mekki’s school, Mastery Charter Shoemaker, was recognized by President Obama and Oprah Winfrey, and was awarded the prestigious EPIC award for three consecutive years as being amongst the top three schools in the country for accelerating students’ achievement levels. The Shoemaker Campus was also recognized as one of the top ten middle school and top ten high schools in the state of Pennsylvania for accelerating the achievement levels of African-American students. Over the years, El-Mekki has served as a part of the U.S. delegation to multiple international conferences on education. He is also the founder of the Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice, an organization dedicated to recruiting, retaining, and developing Black male teachers. El-Mekki blogs on Philly's 7th Ward, is a member of the 8 Black Hands podcast, and serves on several boards and committees focused on educational and racial justice.

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