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Black Americans On Celebrating July 4th Amid National Unrest Over Racial Injustice

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Independence Day celebrates freedom. And how do you celebrate America's day of independence when it comes during nationwide protests against police brutality, especially if you're a Black American?

ELI ARNOLD: We're celebrating freedom and independence, but, I mean, who's free?

SIMON: Eli Arnold lives in California and is the vocalist for a metal band called Zolto. He's thinking about July Fourth a little differently this year.

ARNOLD: I mean, there is this - Black folks like me who are not free to just walk around in their own neighborhood for fear that they might get the police called on them. So, I mean, I don't have as much freedom I feel like as everyone else does.

SIMON: Mr. Arnold says he's always felt like this, but this year, that feeling has grown sharper.

ARNOLD: In years past, I used to go, like, hang out at a friend's party. Mine lived down the street from Disneyland, so we've gone there and watched the fireworks before. But now, I've realized that a lot of the friends that I used to hang out with don't think my life matters. So those aren't people I really want to hang out with anymore. I feel very isolated in that respect.

ANGELITA REYES: I don't think I think differently about it. Perhaps, it's even more accented. There's more emphasis, more impact on the meaning of July Fourth.

SIMON: Angelita Reyes is a professor emeritus at Arizona State University. Her father's family immigrated from Honduras, and her mother's family was part of the Great Migration of African Americans in this country.

REYES: And so there was always an idea of betterment, of striving, of improving. We knew where we came from. We had this wholeness, and we celebrated as family members. The Fourth of July, there were the barbecues. So I had all these good memories of what the Fourth means. And as I got older, of course, I said, well, maybe we have not cashed in yet on this American dream.

SIMON: Ms. Reyes says she started to think more critically about the holiday after she got to university.

REYES: I was introduced to Langston Hughes and his famous signature poem, "I, Too, Sing, America." They tell me to go to the kitchen. That's where I eat. But I eat. But I am American; Frederick Douglass, "What Does The Fourth Of July Mean To The Negro." All of these ideas, these metaphors are saying we are a part of the Fourth of July, and we want to be invested in that complete reality, that complete acceptance.

SIMON: And she says despite police brutality and decades of deeply rooted racism, she still feels her worth as an American today.

REYES: The Fourth of July is home. I've traveled the world over, and I always wanted to come back home. And so this is where we have to work to improve the situation to be a part of this social movement, a part of Black Lives Matter, a part of striving for racial unity.

JOEL BERVELL: Honestly, I feel like I'm not thinking about July Fourth differently just because I've always think had to think about it differently.

SIMON: Joel Bervell is a second-year medical student in Spokane, Wash.

BERVELL: So I'm a child of immigrants, and my parents are from Ghana, West Africa. And I'm also a Black man that's grown up in the United States. So because of that, July Fourth has always kind of been a day of reflection for me. And I think a large segment of the U.S. population has always grappled with the meaning of July Fourth.

SIMON: Mr. Bervell says he feels lucky to have grown up as the child of immigrants during these piercing conversations these days about what the Fourth of July means to different people.

BERVELL: I feel like it's given me kind of that perspective to put myself in someone else's shoes, to understand that the world isn't black or white, but there are so many different diverse perspectives.

SIMON: Joel Bervell has plans to celebrate today and then to reflect.

BERVELL: Thinking about what did July Fourth mean 244 years ago for different groups of people, what does it mean today for those different groups of people, as well? So for people like an undocumented immigrant or a mother of a Black boy, what does freedom mean for them when people are literally trying to deport you or can take away your son at any moment? So I think July Fourth is the time to think about what independence means. But it has to be equal parts celebration of how far we've come but also recognition of how far we still have to go.

SIMON: But Eli Arnold, the vocalist in California, says that he's finding it hard to think about celebrating at all this year.

ARNOLD: I'm just going to light up some fireworks in the street and then go inside before someone calls the cops on me. I mean, sure; we're celebrating America's independence. It's our - what? - 200-something birthday. Cool. What else we got on the table, you know? We have 130,000 deaths from coronavirus. People are marching in the streets because of racial inequality. People think that my life mattering is a point of contention. So what are we celebrating? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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