What to a Black Nationalist is the Fourth of July?

Peaceful protestors rally around the flag in the Ferguson protest zone. (Lawrence Bryant/St. Louis American)

“Woe be unto a people, a race who seek not their own foundation; their wives shall be servants for the wives of other men, and their daughters shall be wives of poor men and vagabonds, and there shall be tears because of privation, then in the end; hell everlasting for there shall be no reward in the kingdom of heaven for [the] slothful nor the unconcerned.” — Chapter 5 of The Holy Piby (1929) by Shepherd Robert Athlyi Rogers

In his 1852 speech before a group of abolitionists, titled “What to a Slave is the 4th of July?”, Frederick Douglass, a former enslaved Afrikan who dedicated his life to securing physical liberty for Black men and women, gave a stirring indictment of the United States, which by that time had exponentially grown as a sovereign nation since attaining independence, all by stealing land from Indigenous people and denying freedom to generations of enslaved Afrikans who built the U.S. economy while in shackles.

Using rhetorical jujitsu, Douglass repeatedly asked his audience how Black people, many of whom U.S. law designated as property of white men and women at the time, were to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence if their conditions hadn’t changed since 1776.

Centuries later, in the face of police brutality, non-indictments of murderous officers, contaminated water and food in majority-Black communities, lack of economic opportunity, and the reemergence of white supremacist sentiments, Black people across the United States face the same dilemma about where they fit in an America that’s vastly different, yet eerily similar to the nation Douglass worked to change.

Fortunately, Our ancestors gave Us the answer to this question many times before — via Black nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and repatriation, all of which have and still provide the means for Us to organize outside of a system that stole Our wealth and wiped out remnants of Our African identity. More importantly, these tools, should We properly use them, allow Us to unite with our sistren and brethren across the Diaspora, just as the United States government has done with the Zionists and its Western European counterparts.

There’s no better person to make this point with than Shepherd Robert Athlyi Rogers, a man driven by his divine mission to free and unite Black people. His work in the early 20th century would inspire and lay the foundation for Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and other Black leaders who have repeatedly called out America for its crimes against humanity and pleaded with Us to build our own table, instead of sitting at the U.S. government’s.

More than 70 years after Douglass’ famous speech, Rogers published The Holy Piby, the foundational text of the Rastafari Movement, a global effort among oppressed people of African descent to return — mentally, spiritually, and in many cases physically — to the African continent, the place Rogers often referred to as Ethiopia in his writings. Rogers’ musings in The Holy Piby contributed to a mindset among truly revolutionary Afrikans in the West that Black people would never be truly free if they adopted the values of their enslavers, including those that forbade their pursuit of self-determination.

As founder of Afro-Athlican Constructive Gaathly, a church-like gathering space that facilitated the emergence of an African identity in Newark, New Jersey, and other parts of the West, Rogers documented the work of the Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association in the United States, calling Garvey a prophet. Later, Leonard P. Howell and early proponents of Rastafari in Jamaica, Garvey’s birthplace, would argue that Garvey’s prediction of the coming of a Black king in the East came to fruition through the coronation of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I, who many Rastas consider a reincarnation of Yeshua, or Jesus Christ.

Garvey, the man We can thank for the red, black, and green of the Garvey Flag, inspired a legion of followers called Garveyites. Malcolm X’s father, killed by Klansmen in Omaha, Nebraska in the early 20th century, counted among the members of this group. Decades later, Malcolm preached unification and channeling of votes under the banner of Black Nationalism in his 1963 address “Ballot or the Bullet.” In his speech to Black people, Malcolm, who had adopted Pan-Africanism in his travels around the world, stressed that Black people overlook economic, religious, and other differences in the interest of consolidating political, social, and economic power among themselves.

No, Malcolm didn’t tell Us to blindly join the Democratic, Republican, or even Green Party. Instead, he suggested that We as a community step outside of those entities, hold on to Our vote and cast it for the candidates who had proven themselves through policy, not speeches and cult of personality, as those who could successfully wheel and deal in the true interest of the Black Nation. Such a perspective paved the way for several Black-centered organizations of the 1970s and beyond that worked outside of the conventional American system.

These Black Nationalist organizations have proven no match for the Democratic plantation, which has taken Our vote for granted in the years since Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan rallied up disgruntled, white male Southerners around contemporary anti-Blackness. Those turn of events somehow convinced Black people that Our best bet was the Democratic Party, even as the friends, colleagues, and children of our fallen leaders were cooking up alternatives in which we had direct control of the agenda.

Some Black Democrats would argue that the lack of appeal in those alternatives lies in an inability to fulfill the needs of the Black populace. The author of this piece thinks that Our collective amnesia makes Us forget how the government orchestrated the murder of our Black leaders and practically scared Us into submission. We’ve also forgotten about the squalor, government-orchestrated violence, and corruption that Democrat-controlled governments have brought Black people.

Many of Us, particularly those who still believe we can liberate ourselves within America’s diabolical two-party political system, choose to ignore the hard truths about Our situation in the United States — even after the untold number of lynchings, literal and metaphorical, over millennia. Even with institutionalized protections, the most talented among Us still face professional and emotional hurdles when they work in these white corporate spaces. The weak minded among them choose their professional ambitions over the well-being of the collective. As Walter Rodney eloquently spelled out in “The Groundings With My Brothers,” today’s rat race is one to immerse oneself into the fabric of this “multicultural” society at the cost of one’s dignity and identity as a son or daughter of Africa.

This ignorance has risen to egregious levels several decades after the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, both pieces of legislation that, while they opened the door to greater political participation, failed to lift Black people out of a permanent underclass status.

Our People, enamored with the legend of our ancestors’ struggle in Selma, Montgomery and other Civil Rights landmarks, are still holding on to the Democratic Party. Keep in mind that, in the so-called Age of Trump, Our Black elected officials, all Democratic Party figureheads in their own right, have spent more time trying to punish an unimpeachable president than advocating for their Black constituents.

This is part of a long tradition of Black politics where, in competing with others’ interests in a party that We don’t even control, we can’t push for legislation that directly affects us. The tomfoolery has gotten to the point where Black people are rallying around an ousted FBI director who once led the organization responsible for Dr. King’s and Malcolm X’s deaths and that of so many other leaders. With all of the telltale signs in front of Us, We as Black people believe that we will prosper under the murderous banner of the American empire, a capitalistic entity that continues to exploit Our people while committing atrocities against non-white people all around the world, all with whom we share a lineage directly back to the Motherland.

The time for such foolishness stops today.

Brave Afrikan men and women have told us time and time again to strip Ourselves of the American identity that’s doused in individualism, ethnocentricity, misogyny, and ignorance. It’s time that we follow that advice or perish in this contemporary fight and form our own Nation, politically, socially, and economically.

Unfortunately, there are brothers and sisters who are on the front lines of this fight who are using their platform to push the agenda of outside actors. Such actions threaten to co-opt the work being done in the grass-roots, upending the progress our People have made in the modern-day liberation fight. Food for thought, DeRay Mckesson: When your liberation work takes you out of the street of Ferguson and into a studio where you get to interview Katy Perry about her cultural appropriation, then just know that you’re doing the work of the powers that be.

For everyone else, may We take this July 4th to fully understand that, though we’re American by name, we’re not Americans by value and heritage. It’s time we acknowledge that and use that information to build a true movement for self-determination.

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