Essay # 1 | Words by Kamau Ware | Illustrations by Asis Ware
July 5th was the first Black American Holiday, celebrated from the early days of our Republic till the Reconstruction Era. This holiday was created because many Black people in America couldn’t celebrate the Fourth of July while slavery was accepted in good conscious. After earning citizenship, Black Americans started celebrating the Fourth of July and July 5th became a mostly forgotten Holiday.
This year, as the July 4th weekend approached, i noticed a range of responses from elation to sadness as Black Americans prepared to grill hot dogs and others had parties to denounce the Fourth. The long list of highly publicized murders of innocent Black people over the past few years has reinforced a sentiment that America will never accept us as equal citizens. i started conceptualizing this piece on July 1st to give some historic context to both the 4th and 5th of July – i celebrate both. In my opinion, we earned our citizenship but without organization and culture, it can be taken away. By the time i got ready to write the piece on July 5th, i was interrupted with the arrival of another name hashtag. With trepidation, i clicked on the name #AltonSterling and the week roared on with headache inducing news and painful posts on all my social media. This piece titled On July 5th took shape over the next two weeks. It has a special place in my heart because my 18 year old son and i spent time in the studio discussing the topic of innocent Black people being killed by the police. He was a great sounding board for these ideas and volunteered to contribute an illustration of the central character in this essay – Frederick Douglass. This piece is three vignettes followed by an essay.
BRITISH NEW YORK
On July 5th 1741, on the west side of Wall Street, William Kane sat alone nervously in a quiet room in City Hall. William was a forty year old soldier stationed at Fort George who moved to New York in 1735 from a small town off the River Shannon in Ireland. Chief Justice James De Lancey walked back into the room where William Kane sat and sternly reminded Mr. Kane about the punishment for lying under oath. William continued to deny any knowledge or complicity in the Conspiracy. Over and over again he denied, then something changed between the Chief Justice’s pauses and stares. William Kane became faint, asked for a drink of water, and sighed. He changed his story and confirmed what had been said about him. He did in fact know Caesar, Cuffy, Prince, and John Hughson – the members of the notorious Geneva Club responsible for what would become known as the Great Negro Plot of 1741. William’s statements were recorded and read back to him by another justice because he was unable to read or write. He placed an “x” by his confession and was once again sitting alone nervously.
The Great Negro Plot was in essence, another Black revolt like the one in New York in 1712 and the Maroon Wars in Jamaica (1720s), but things began to take on a more complex complexion in 1741. Caesar, Prince, and Cuffy were members of a Black gang called the Geneva Club with a network that included a tavern keeper, soldiers, sailors, and prostitutes – basically the working class of British New York that was more than the enslaved. Over cider and rum, the Geneva Club leader, Caesar devised a plan at John Hughson’s tavern to burn down the town and kill the white people. At frolics, cockfights, and at a water pump on the west side of the island, enslaved Blacks and the working class Irish drank drams, organized themselves, and pledged to the plot. After the revolt, from the ashes and carnage, a new government would rise. John Hughson would be its King and Caesar its Governor. By the time William Kane made his confession on July 5th, the leadership of the Geneva Club had all been brought to the second floor of City Hall to be tried in court, found guilty, and sentenced to death by hanging or burned alive. But the New York Supreme Court was not satisfied. They kept pushing to get to the bottom of what the attorney general called “the most horrible and destructive plot that ever was yet known in these northern parts of America.”
111 years later … ROCHESTER, NEW YORK
On July 5th 1852, on the corner of Main and Exchange Place in Rochester New York, people were whispering in their seats under high ceilings in the newly constructed Corinthian Hall. This was a lecture organized by the Rochester Ladies Antislavery Sewing Society that was not even a year old but quickly establishing a reputation for producing successful events. This lecture would be one of their most famous. They even had the sitting US President Milard Filmore in attendance. The same President Filmore who signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act two years prior making it possible for any escaped Black person to be captured and returned to a cotton plantation in the South. The Rochester Ladies billed the lecture as a celebration of the Fourth of July but must have known their esteemed speaker, Mr. Frederick Douglass, would deviate from the standard American Independence praise.
Mr. Douglass was a citizen of Rochester but first landed in New York City a free man in 1838. He was the publisher of the abolitionist newspaper The North Star and a sought after lecturer whose spoken and written words illustrated the inhumanity of slavery. Corinthian Hall had amazingly tall windows that brought in summer air to cool the moment. People quieted themselves before Mr. Douglass crossed the stage situating himself between the two Greek columns to address a full room. He may have given the President a nod before delivering an address titled What to the slave is the Fourth of July? Over 10,000 powerful words shaming a nation that declared all men are created equal then also created fugitive slave catchers roaming the streets.
164 years later… BATON ROUGE, LOUISIANA
On July 5th, 2016 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where North Foster Drive meets Fairfield Avenue, Alton B. Sterling was taking in the summer air in the Triple S Food Mart parking lot where he sells bootleg music CDs. This parking lot was located in North Baton Rouge that is predominantly poor and Black. Sterling was a fixture at this location, affectionately known as CD Man. The owner of the Triple S Food Mart, Abdullah Muflahi, met Sterling six years ago when he was selling CDs at a different location. Over the years, Abdullah born in Yemen and Alton born in Baton Rouge, became good friends and their entrepreneurial activities worked in tandem as both sold to the same customers from late night till early morning.
That night, a group of young filmmakers were listening to police scanners ready to capture footage for their documentary in progress about the violence that plagues their community. They were youth participants in an organization called Stop The Killing started by gang member turned rapper turned activist, Arthur Reed. That night, police officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II were driving around on duty and about to get a call that would be overheard by the young filmmakers. That night, a homeless man with a cell phone asks Alton Sterling for some money. After telling the homeless man to go away multiple times unsuccessfully, he revealed that he was carrying a firearm to make it clear he wanted to be left alone. The homeless man walks away, then calls the police and reports that a man in a red shirt selling CDs at the Triple S Food Mart had threatened him with a gun. The call went to the two officers on duty and soon, Alton B. Sterling, Abdullah Muflahi, officer Salamoni, officer Lake, and the young filmmakers from Stop The Killing, would all be in the Triple S Food Mart parking lot.
Two weeks later … Somewhere in Brooklyn, New York
i’m struggling to put all the context and my emotions into a coherent form and i keep coming back to one illuminating aspect of the 1741 Negro Plot which was the ambiguity of whiteness. Members of the Geneva Club like Caesar, regularly spent nights eating and drinking at his Irish friend John Hughson’s home. When the plan to burn down the town and kill the white people was created, William Kane, the Hughsons, Peggy Kerry, and other working class New Yorkers signed up because they didn’t identify with being white. The white people were the top 10% with all the money, whigs and ruffles; those who bought enslaved Africans and colonized Ireland, sending poor Irish to work as indentures in the West Indies and places like New York. After the 1741 Trial was over, efforts were made immediately to make greater distinctions between the enslaved and the working poor from Europe. They didn’t want to ever see a similar class-based uprising again.
In 1838, when Frederick Douglass secretly arrived on the west side of New York City on Chambers street. He recalled “walking amid the hurrying throng, and gazing upon the dazzling wonders of Broadway. The dreams of my childhood and the purposes of my manhood were now fulfilled”. Did Frederick Douglass know when he was walking down Broadway that he was walking in the same footsteps as Caesar? An enslaved African who was plotting in New York City taverns to run the British out of town before 1741? That both of them made bold plans to end their lives as slaves but Caesar’s plan was so bold that it was suppressed. By the time Frederick Douglass arrived in New York, the memory of dark skinned revolutionaries like Caesar had been erased. The American Mythology was already in full bloom. This was a country created for and by white people and the only freedom loving people who dared to rise up in arms and declare freedom or death.
In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law made any white person a slave catcher, any white person helping an escaped slave a criminal, and it made every Black person suspicious. Black people had to prove they were innocent of the crime of stealing themselves from their masters. Any white person could demand a Black person to prove they are legally free which further created distinction between Blacks and whites with fatal consequences.
After the Civil War and assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, violent conflicts between the Freedman’s Bureau and Confederate soldiers continued. Without a military presence in the South, Reconstruction and the gains of the Civil Rights Laws would not hold. President Andrew Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 twice before the Congress found a way to work around him and pass the bill, ushering in the Reconstruction Era. After the closed door federal Compromise of 1877, the Freedman’s Bureau was pulled out of the South and the North turned a blind eye to the murder and terror that put freed Black families back in a state of dependence and fear. Reconstruction was defeated with physical, economic, and political violence. Even worse, there was no plantation to return to, so some southern survivors of the Civil War hunted and killed Black people for sport. From 1882 to 1964 there were over 3,000 lynchings of Black people. These crimes consistently went unpunished.
Meanwhile, Europeans who traveled from various countries came to the Unites States by the millions to escape persecution in their native land and/or seek economic opportunity in the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Part of becoming American was entering the proverbial melting pot and coming out white. In the north and south, white became the ruling class and Blacks the ruled without equal protection under the law. Powerful new technology such as films like D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation of 1915 that was originally titled The Clansman, made disdain and violence toward Blacks central to the identity of whiteness. The oppression reached a boiling point one century after the Civil War. The tipping point was the hunting and murdering of Emmett Till in 1955. Black people began to organize in an effort to demand the laws passed in the 1860s get enforced – citizenship and equal protection under the law.
Today we’re coming to terms with the awkward reality that our Republic still allows some citizens the privilege and power to hunt and kill Black people and go unpunished. In some places, it’s worse than the past. Alton Sterling was not lynched by the police, however he would have received better treatment from a fugitive slave catcher in 1852. If Alton Sterling was a slave caught setting a white man’s house on fire in 1741, he would have been arrested, brought to City Hall, and tried before a jury before being executed. On July 5th 2016, Alton Sterling was treated worse than a slave who committed a crime in the 19th or 18th century. In ever expanding pockets of our Republic today, it would be safer to be a slave than a free Black man.
i’m sure Sterling would have preferred to be taken back to prison then have the world close in on him in the Triple S Food Mart parking lot. If Alton was someone’s property, they would hold the officers accountable. Even more alarming is that our corporate consumer society has made the murder of Alton Sterling revenue generating as we click past ads to watch and rewatch the two angles of him being shot in the chest while pinned down to the ground. Is it possible that the ad revenue from such a graphic story is worth more than the cotton a single enslaved person could have picked in a year? We’re frozen in a downward spiral in a society that hasn’t figured out how to hold police accountable for ending Black lives while tangible financial gains are made in the aftermath of such violence. The only way to stop this is to get enough traction to reprogram ourselves with the truth.
One of the key ingredients in creating American whiteness is the erasure of Blackness. On the steps of what is now Federal Hall on Wall Street is a large statue of George Washington where he took his oath of office on the second floor of what was then City Hall in 1789. George Washington and those who served should always have our respect for their sacrifice and courage. But where are the images of the Black veterans who served with General Washington? A conservative estimate places the amount of Black troops at 10-15% of the Continental Army starting in 1777. When the war was over, the Continental Army became our first integrated institution but once we created whiteness, Black people loss their humanity in order to satisfy the economic and political aims of southern slaveholders. As these distinctions set in, our armed forces would fight on both sides of the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War without formally integrating the military. General George Washington fought along Black soldiers to gain American Independence but we would not see the likes of such an integrated institution again until the Vietnam War.
When we ask When will our racial tensions end? We’re asking the wrong question. When did it start? is a better question. This tension was outlined in wet clay immediately after the American Revolution and has been fired and glazed after our traumatic Civil War. Many of our nations forefathers and foremothers created their identity as white without thinking of the consequences of loosing their hyphen and consuming media that depicted Black people as sub-human. Being Black was suspicious and unAmerican. This makes the problem bigger than the police. We’re all brainwashed. What happened in a parking lot in Baton Rouge on July 5th 2016 quickly became national news and that was only the beginning of a tough week where we had to come to terms that our Republic has been sleepwalking through the aftermath of the Civil War…151 years later. Black citizenship can be taken away by a bullet. So today i ask a similar question as Frederick Douglass 164 years ago, What is the purpose of celebrating the Fourth of July if we keep killing each other?