Commentary

What to the descendants of enslaved people is the Fourth of July? | Opinion

Ahead of the 2018 gubernatorial race between Stacey Abrams and then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp, 50,000 voters were purged from the state’s rolls by Kemp’s office.

By Kadida Kenner

As a descendant of enslaved people in America, I felt compelled to pay homage to 19th century orator, abolitionist, and women’s suffrage supporter, Frederick Douglass on the 169th anniversary of his address to a mostly white, anti-slavery activists audience.

Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” is an important piece of Americana delivered on July 5,1852 in Rochester, New York.

Douglass’ masterpiece reminds us that as our nation celebrates its independence and political freedom from tyranny, it is on this July 4, 2021 that the descendants of formerly enslaved people in America recognize that the freedoms our nation celebrates are in constant peril.

I’m penning this op-Ed to bring attention to the current and urgent need to secure and defend democracy during these turbulent times.

On July 1, 2021, the majority conservative justices of the United States Supreme Court handed down their ruling dismantling most of the provisions in the Voting Rights Act, making it easier for state legislatures to disproportionately disenfranchise and suppress the votes of the descendants of enslaved people in America.

I want readers to understand that the struggle to maintain our Constitutional rights, including our voting rights, are at stake even in the 21st century, especially for Black people. This is the new Jim Crow and we demand the passage of the For the People Act.

July 4th was initially celebrated during a time when not every person in America was free from oppression and chains.

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When it was first observed, Black people in America were not even considered a whole person, but three-fifths of a person, with no Constitutional rights or citizenship.

Not until the last enslaved person was notified of their freedom from bondage, on Juneteenth (June 19, 1865), the same year the 13th Amendment was passed and ratified by Congress were all people truly free. Hypocritically, our nation celebrated its freedom and independence of its people for nearly a century before my ancestors were released from chattel slavery and considered free people.

Douglass’ memorial in Rochester, NY was recently vandalized in response to the removal of Confederate monuments. “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future.” – Frederick Douglass (submitted)

And while now physically free from bondage, our civil and voting rights are at risk in this country.

According to research conducted by the Brennan Center, “At least 61 bills with restrictive provisions in 18 states are moving through legislatures: 31 have passed at least one chamber, while another 30 have had some sort of committee action (e.g., a hearing, an amendment, or a committee vote). Overall, legislators have introduced at least 389 bills with restrictive provisions in 48 states.”

To make this more clear, following the 2020 election, 48 states have either drafted or passed some form of restrictive voter suppression bills disguised as “election reform” or “election integrity,” including the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

In reality, these bills are designed to create unjust barriers to the voting rights of Black, brown, marginalized, disabled people, and consequently most voters.

Incited to act on behalf of Donald Trump’s “Big Lie”, ultra-conservative right-wing extremists in legislatures across the country are sowing the seeds of distrust in our voting systems and processes.

“[Your forefathers] went so far in their excitement as to pronounce the measures of government unjust, unreasonable, and oppressive… they felt themselves the victims of grievous wrongs, wholly incurable in their colonial capacity.” — Frederick Douglass

All Americans should take heed. Restrictive voter suppression bills will also affect you.

The voting rights of formerly enslaved people in America are currently under attack. I demand access to the ballot without any undue hindrance to the right to vote.

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Now is the time to speak up and speak out for our freedoms. We must demand the passage of H.1/S.1 (For The People Act) and secure and protect our voting rights in this Nation for generations to come. As a descendant of enslaved people denied basic human dignity, I urge everyone to register to vote, and then also cast your ballots in every single election.

I encourage every American to spend this 4th of July checking in with your friends and family to ensure we are all exercising our franchise in honor of our ancestors who heroically fought and died for that right.

In the words of Georgia’s former gubernatorial candidate, and voting rights trailblazer, Stacey Abrams, “Silence is not only dangerous, it is corrosive.”

As a descendant of formerly enslaved people, I am the culmination of our ancestors’ wildest hopes and dreams. The hardships our ancestors endured is ingrained in my DNA, and although, today, I am physically free, I don’t feel free while restricted by voter suppression laws.

Jim Crow is alive and well in the 21st century but ‘more suave’ as it takes the form of “James Crow, Esquire.”

So I ask again, what to the descendants of enslaved people is the Fourth of July? I say it is a day to recognize that our freedoms are fragile and not fully realized, and we must continue to advocate for the continued advancement of all people.

Freedom isn’t free.

Kadida Kenner is the executive director of the New Pennsylvania Project, a voting rights and registration organization. Most of her enslaved ancestors were born and enslaved on plantations in South Carolina, Louisiana and Mississippi. She writes from Harrisburg.

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