For the Fourth

Frederick Douglass, one of the nation's most famous fugitive slaves

Frederick Douglass

I intended to leave the Fourth of July unmarked. Patriotic holidays don’t do much for me. But Civil War Emancipation reminded me of Frederick Douglass’ speech on the occasion in 1852:

Friends and citizens, I need not enter further into the causes which led to this anniversary. Many of you understand them better than I do. You could instruct me in regard to them. That is a branch of knowledge in which you feel, perhaps, a much deeper interest than your speaker. The causes which led to the separation of the colonies from the British crown have never lacked for a tongue. They have all been taught in your common schools, narrated at your firesides, unfolded from your pulpits, and thundered from your legislative halls, and are as familiar to you as household words. They form the staple of your national poetry and eloquence.

I remember, also, that, as a people, Americans are remarkably familiar with all facts which make in their own favor. This is esteemed by some as a national trait—perhaps a national weakness. It is a fact, that whatever makes for the wealth or for the reputation of Americans, and can be had cheap! will be found by Americans. I shall not be charged with slandering Americans, if I say I think the American side of any question may be safely left in American hands.

Again and again Douglass speaks, to his largely white audience, about your freedoms, your rights, your nation and your holiday. Because

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. —The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mineYou may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”

Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July!

Slavery is gone but the many injustices that remain, continue, and even get invented anew. They dulled my enthusiasm for the subject long ago. Celebrating “America” doesn’t make much sense to me, as America includes not just the First Amendment or free elections, but also slavery and segregation. Quietly passing over the ugly bits of the national past and present feels perverse to me, like calling a mass murderer a great humanitarian if one ignores all the mass murdering. I suppose we can put the good and bad on different sides of a scale, but they don’t really cancel each other out. Free elections, the vote for women, and emancipation all happened. So did slavery, lynching, Indian removal, and all the rest. We can’t give back the years and lives lost and undo the suffering from wrongs done. They are America too, writ large in as much blood as watered any battlefield.

I don’t mean to say that everyone celebrating today ignores or trivializes the bad parts, but too often they do get lost as Americans bask in the glory of…us. Don’t let me stop you from celebrating if you want to, but if you don’t normally maybe today can also be a day to try to put yourself in the shoes of someone like Douglass and imagine what the Fourth looks like from there. I don’t think Americans as a whole do enough of that.

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