It was 1995. My sister put up streamers and red, white, and blue balloons. Holidays were her thing. She’s festive in that way. I remember that feeling I got when I stepped outside...stunting...’cause everybody knew you got a new outfit for the 4th. Blackfolks strutting around, embodying cool, donning emblems of our freedom in a place that never imagined freedom for us. Because, even in the midst of feeling less than free, you can't outdo Black people.
My dad would take all the boys in his big white boat of a Fleetwood Cadillac to the fireworks tent across state lines in Mississippi. (The sale of fireworks was illegal in Tennessee) We grabbed our baskets and filled them with the perfect mixture of shit that glows, pops, and explodes: sparklers, colorful smoke bombs, firecrackers, and that little tank that only moves an inch before bursting into flames.
I remember the wait. That long wait on those long summer days. Sitting on those little orange plastic chairs on grandma's porch on Beverly Street. Because what's the 4th without Beverly Street? That muthafuggin wait. Sitting outside because “y’all kids better stay in or out” and, in spite of the crackling Memphis heat, out was always the choice on the 4th. We stared at the sky as if it would make it darker soon. You knew, at 11 years old, that, where there is blackness, there would be action. There were brave souls who would hold the fire cracker while lighting it, hoping to throw it before it explodes. There was the perfect form of a young girl leaning to light an entire pack of firecrackers, ready to get her muthafuggin Flo Jo sprint on once the fuse was lit. An unsuspecting auntie jumps in fear as the sound of firecrackers litter the air like Tommy gun bullets. Meanwhile, your uncle is still trying to light the coals in the grill. Auntie walks over and, like a pro, lights the grill like she's been lighting his fire for twenty-five or so years.
When the night came, my eleven year old self stepped to the curb and extended my arm as a Roman candle loosed fire into the sky. I imagined I was the Statue of Liberty or an X-men character. Gambit perhaps…Or maybe Storm letting go of lightning’s fury. A bottle rocket went rogue as the tin can meant to be its holster overturned, sending the tiny missile screaming down the street. Kids dodged the rocket as its high pitched scream sailed past them, followed by a quick pop. Etta walked by with a baby on her hip. My mama’s sweet tea was in the baby’s bottle. Because, in Orange Mound, that’s what you expect when you’re expecting.
The night's finale, as was tradition, came with Uncle Bo. He would always buy the biggest damn fireworks you'd ever seen. He would set the thick tower of explosives in the middle of the street, and the kids would stare in wonder as the sky was set ablaze by the dancing fire of sparkle. Uncle Bo, a mere man who, in my eyes, tamed fire and wielded it in his hands. On the 4th, Bo was the Muthafuggin Black Prometheus.
The idea of freedom wrapped in red, white, and blue followed me through the years. Elementary school programs saluted the Gulf War soldiers as we, the boys, dressed in camo short sets and the girls wore patriotic outfits sewn by the mother of our classmate. My high school show choir danced and said in fifty five minute shows wearing gaudy sequin numbers in red and blue, with white tuxedo jackets, singing about America "since Columbus sailed so many years ago." And there was the mythology. That part never felt real. Pledges of allegiance to that flag never felt real to me.
What’s freedom to a little Black boy? I saw the red, white, and blue lights swirling around a corner store where a 68 year old neighborhood man had been gunned down by police. I grew up to see the rocket's red glare light up Ferguson and the bombs bursting in air over Baghdad. Something about the American tall tales and stories of freedom, whether I was 11 or 21 or 31, never felt real. I didn’t believe in it, because it didn’t believe in me.
I decided to focus on what was real. Family. Friends. Fireworks. Fellowship. I celebrate the 4th in the way that most secular folks – and religious folks too, if we are honest with ourselves – celebrate Christmas and Easter. I celebrate the feelings and the material aspects rather than the mythology behind the 4th… The mythology which tells us that we were freed on that day of independence although we hold these truths to be self evident – all white aristocratic men were created equal. The rest of us were left waiting. As Blackfolks, we celebrate Independence Day not because of its meaning, but in spite of its meaning.
I don't think of America's past and feel free. I don't think of America's present and future and feel free. But there's freedom in the Black celebration. The 4th is likely the Blackest holiday there is. We gather all the things that were never meant for us and fashion them into marvels. Barbecue grills on Bed-Stuy sidewalks, carefree Black queer boys twirling on beaches, girls jumping double dutch on cracked pavement, and families trying to figure out who brought this year's potato salad so we can make sure they are never invited again. We make our own freedom where there is none. We take the frayed fabric of broken promises and wrap ourselves in Frankie Beverly and Maze, mama's banana pudding, and the gleaming white leather of a new pair of kicks. If you step on the latter, you will catch these hands.
Mac and cheese piled high on a paper plate siting next to a red solo cup with your name on it. Your name, written with a Sharpie, is there so you don’t lose your cup; it’s there to remind you of what’s yours and who you are. The 4th is Black freedom marinated in your cousin’s nondescript wine cooler concoction, roasted over your uncle’s fiery language fueled by beer, and pieced together like dominoes on a concrete table in a park with rubber pieces on the ground under a rusted jungle gym.
It was 1995. And I twirled with a sparkler, fell to the ground, and looked on as my cousins chased lightning bugs. I felt the warm grass underneath me, and much like Beverly Street on the 4th, I felt free. I felt lit.