What, to Us All, is the 4th of July?

What, To Us All, is the 4th of July? | Taking Hope from Our Past
Frederick Douglass ca. 1866

In 1852, escaped slave and extraordinary orator Frederick Douglass gave his speech, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” in Rochester, NY, in those days a hotbed of radical activism. In his speech, Douglass reminded his audience of the achievements of 1776, praising the men who achieved liberty from England and parsing, to some extent, their philosophy for doing so. Then he launched into the meat of his argument: that liberty did not extend to the enslaved, that they could not partake in the joy of the holiday for it did not apply to them. At one point, he calls out his audience for their bullshit in a way reminiscent of some current argumentative frameworks, to wit:

“But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say, it is just in this circumstance that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. Would you argue more, and denounce less, would you persuade more, and rebuke less, your cause would be much more likely to succeed. But, I submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued. What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man?”

And then he gets really rolling:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”

Knowing that this will make his audience–an audience far more receptive to his message than most would be in the 1850s–deeply uncomfortable, he lays his case at their feet. We have been too quiet, he says. We have made patient arguments to no avail, he says. Our nation is one of brutality, and your rhetoric as white people about liberty while others remain in bondage is at best vapid.

Why am I bringing this up today?

I have heard a number of people saying they won’t celebrate the 4th of July this year given our lamentable political mess and its implications for the very fabric of our society. I hear them, but I want to give them a little encouragement:

We have been through far worse as a nation–we have encouraged and enacted far worse–and over time, we moved past the worst of ourselves to become, in slow degrees, better.

Even Douglass, with his justifiable rage, noted, “I do not despair of this country…No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable…No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.”

Let us embrace the spirit of Frederick Douglass this 4th of July.

Let us take his advice and never let this administration normalize. We must put our feet where our mouths are, by marching along with speaking, by calling out this threat to our nation beyond our retweets and facebook shares. Douglass wrote, “We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed.” Let us not forget that we are part of a global world which has in many corners begun to turn away from neo-fascists like 45. Let us also not forget that we have done far worse to ourselves as a nation, and that we can–as we have before–become far better.

Full speech can be found here.

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