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What Independence Day Means to Me As a Black Woman Living With Racial Trauma

“I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us.” — Frederick Douglass,  “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” July 5, 1852

Independence Day felt heavy and conflicted this year. As the daughter and stepdaughter of Vietnam War veterans and granddaughter of World War II veterans, I’ve always felt a sense of civic responsibility to my country. I fly the American flag on my front porch, because I, too, am America. The blood of free Africans, enslaved Black Americans, and their white enslavers runs freely through my veins and I’ve struggled with the intersectionality of these truths. As Caroline Randall Williams so eloquently stated in her opinion piece in the NY Times last year, “ My light-brown-blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South.” As a Black woman living through race-based traumatic stress, I am left to wonder what July Fourth means to me in a country where my life is often devalued because of my race. Where resources for adequate education, mental, physical, and maternal health can often feel so far away for the Black community. What does the Fourth of July mean for those of us who grapple with our place in our country of origin?

I was raised to believe that it was my duty to make my community better than I found it, yet I’ve witnessed the inequities that exist in Black and Brown communities throughout the Nation. From touring schools in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina studying socio-politics as a Yale National Fellow to working as a classroom teacher in my own community, I’ve wrestled with America’s broken promise to her Black and Brown sons and daughters. As a Black woman struggling from the effects of anxiety and racial trauma, I’ve felt that my Blackness has been on display my entire life. Growing up in a predominantly white community, I quickly learned how to code-switch as a means of survival. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been a voice at the center of our Nation’s reckoning with race. As the mother of social justice teen activist Ava Holloway, and as a writer and activist myself, I discuss racism as trauma on a near-daily basis guiding white community members through their often discomfort during conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion.

I’ve wrestled with what it means to be Black in the United States and while Independence Day celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, it took the 13th Amendment, signed December 6, 1865, to abolish American chattel slavery (except as punishment for a crime). Even after the enacting of the 13th Amendment, poll taxes, Jim Crow laws, redlining, segregation, gentrification, the housing crisis, rising student loan debt in the Black community, and our Nation’s failed War on Drugs, have all made the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness feel like an uphill battle for Black America. Black adults in the U.S. are more likely than white adults to report persistent symptoms of sadness, hopelessness and feeling like everything is an effort. SAMHSA reports, only one in three Black adults who need mental health care receive it. There are glaring disparities and barriers to mental health care. How do we honor the true meaning of July Fourth when there are so many lingering inequalities in our community?

Previously, I noted that brain research has suggested for years that racism and poverty are toxic to a developing brain, similar to the impact of alcohol and drugs. Persistent (and historic) oppression, harassment and racial trauma can cause a sense of helplessness and fear among those who experience it. This year, my extended family and I gathered for July Fourth as a time to reflect on life post-pandemic and as an opportunity to celebrate our multigenerational family. July is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month which provides an opportunity to discuss the unique challenges facing Black and brown communities and to help reduce the stigma surrounding mental healthcare.

Many Black Americans have been left feeling free-ish, but not free over the past year during a great deal of racial civil unrest. We are left grappling with hard truths as we ask ourselves: how do we celebrate the true meaning of Independence Day as we continue to fight for our birthright, our freedom? From the insurrection at our Nation’s Capitol to the endless coverage of police shootings, this year’s Independence Day felt different. It felt complicated. If not now, when is it time to examine the implicit and explicit bias that is intrinsically woven into our Nations’ fabric and in many of our holidays? How do we engage in conversations surrounding the racial trauma and implicit bias rooted in holidays such as Robert E. Lee Day (which is celebrated across the South), Independence Day and Thanksgiving.

For those of us who struggle with anxiety and inner conflict during these holidays, do we move reclaim them in an attempt to celebrate our collective resilience?

BIPOC community members — What are your reflections about July Fourth? Do you celebrate our Nation’s freedom or is it just another day to barbecue and spend time with your friends and family?

White community members — How can you support members of the BIPOC community who may be struggling with celebrate many of these holidays?

As you navigate through your post-July Fourth feelings and Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, here are some additional resources if you find that you are struggling with your mental health.

  • Coping with Stress from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers strategies and resources to help people cope with feelings of isolation, loneliness, stress and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic, while still observing safety measures to help prevent and reduce the spread of the virus.
  • This online resource from mentalhealth.gov provides information on how different groups may discuss mental health and find support.
  • Behavioral Health Equity Resources from samhsa.gov includes data on health disparities and health care quality among diverse populations, and information for improving health literacy and policy as well as cultural and linguistic competency.
  • Coronavirus Guidance and Resources offers guidance to assist individuals, providers, and communities.
  • NAMI has also put together a comprehensive list of Black Mental Health resources.

Getty Images photo via jacoblund