National anthems, with their melodies of patriotic pride, set a sort of precedent for nations and their paths to progress. However, the American promise of justice for all does not ring true in past or present, as police brutality and institutionalized racism continue to divide the country. Through his account of the African-American struggle, W.E.B. Du Bois deems “the land of the free” a cruel misnomer, as freedom and its evolving forms continue to evade people of color.
Du Bois recalls the emancipation of his ancestors as a visible, tangible promise of freedom – only to be broken by a series of disappointments. He points to a recurring pattern of false freedoms “granted” to African-Americans in the name of progress, first with physical emancipation and next with the right to vote. While the Emancipation Proclamation freed early African-Americans from the brutalities of slavery, it failed to protect them from the oppressive systems that were designed keep people of color in second-class status. With the advent of sharecropping, former slaves were trapped in a cycle of poverty and ultimately became indebted to their landlords. Once again, excessive power and greed limited the freedoms of the oppressed. And, just as slaves eyed emancipation as a “visible sign of freedom” (106), they looked to the power of the ballot as their ticket to democracy and equal treatment. But, just as sharecropping denied slaves financial freedom, the promise of democracy failed them as well; impossible citizenship tests and fees kept black voters out of the polls. Du Bois expressed his frustration at this realization, describing the years after slavery as a “tantalizing will-o’-the-wisp” (106) that woke his fathers from their delusional dreams of liberty and justice. Freedom, for Du Bois and the black community, is a tease. When physical freedom is gained, the freedman becomes aware of the multiplicity of freedoms he has yet to attain.
As Souls of Black Folk was published in 1903, much of Du Bois’ story, and the story of his children, is left to tell. Time maps the broken promises of freedom; of “the freedom of life and limb” in the days of slavery; of “the freedom to work and think” in the years of industrialization and reconstruction; of “the freedom to love and aspire” in the years of cultural revolution and renaissance (108). It is this pattern of evolving freedoms, of evading justice, of the tantalizing tease and the broken promise of liberty, that proves a threat to our future. Like a mathematical limit, freedom in its entirety may never reach a level of wholeness for minorities in America. In a society that only “inches” (107) towards progress instead of making leaps and bounds and actively erasing the wrongs of our past, Arthur Symons’ words speak to Du Bois’ prophecy: “Unresting water, there shall never be rest” (104). To be at rest is to end the chase for physical, personal, educational, political, and financial freedom; it is to attain, at last, the multiplicity of freedoms that allow the individual to live out the American Dream. According to Du Bois, though, that rest may never come.
It is a dismal truth that full equality in this country will not occur in yours or my lifetime, and it is only fair to conclude that it will not occur in our children’s either. We celebrate our “independence” with fireworks and apple pie; we send soldiers to protect those “freedoms” that we so ardently boast; and we compose a sugar-coated harmony of patriotism and pride to sing the song of an undivided nation, a “land of the free.” But while the national anthem set a precedent for the United States of America to maintain that freedom, we failed upon arrival. In our slaughters of indigenous peoples, we failed ourselves. In our system of slavery, we failed ourselves. In Jim Crow and in internment camps and in assimilation and in predatory lending and in segregated schools, we failed ourselves. In the 193 killings of black men and women by police that have occurred this year (Craven and Waldron), we continue to fail ourselves. Those in possession of power and privilege and greed continually break the promise of freedom for minorities – specifically the black community – by failing to recognize historical, institutional patterns of racism and by failing to actively reverse the repercussions of slavery.