When I learned that SheKnows.com, the largest online community of women ages 18-54, picked my novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser as one of this year's best Fourth of July reads, I was delighted. Still, I couldn't help but wonder what the real Mary Bowser -- and for that matter, Frederick Douglass -- would think of the timing.
Mary Bowser was born into slavery, freed, and educated in the North -- but, amazingly, she returned to the South to serve as a Union spy, by pretending to be a slave in the Confederate White House. What better way to celebrate the Fourth of July than with a novel inspired by a real-life hero who risked her own liberty to ensure America finally made real the ideals illuminated in the Declaration of Independence?
But in the novel, the holiday Mary celebrates isn't the 4th of July. It's August 1st.
Why would American blacks mark this holiday, better known as British Emancipation Day? In the years preceding the Civil War, Philadelphia's abolitionist community -- a vibrant mix of black and white activists -- held parades on August 1st to commemorate Britain's ending of slavery in the West Indies. And to call on the United States to end slavery here as well.
It was a bitter irony that a British holiday provided a more apt date to demand America live up to its defining principles of equality for all, and of the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In The Secrets of Mary Bowser, shortly after arriving in the North, Mary writes to her parents, one of whom remains enslaved in Virginia, about how Philadelphia's African American community celebrates August 1st. She explicitly contrasts the day to July 4th, repeating Frederick Douglass' assessment of the America's Independence Day celebrations.
When Douglass was invited to speak at an Independence Day event in 1852, he asked the audience, "Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? . . . What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? . . . This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn." But Douglass did more than mourn. He was one of the staunchest advocates for American abolition.
Exactly 160 years have passed since Douglass called the 4th of July a hollow mockery for American blacks. As we mark Independence Day this year, I'm proud that my novel is being seen as part of the celebration. However you spend the holiday, take the time to remember and honor Mary Bowser, Frederick Douglass, and other blacks who contributed to the triumph of liberty over slavery in America. They have indeed given all Americans reason to rejoice.
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