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'What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?' Frederick Douglass' 1852 speech still resonates

How can anyone celebrate the nation's founding when civil liberties and systemic injustices yet persist?
Image: Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass circa 1880.MPI / Getty Images

“Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?” Frederick Douglass asked a packed hall of fellow Americans in Rochester, New York on July 5, 1852, a full 10 years before Lincoln would sign an executive order freeing enslaved persons in southern and bordering states. Douglass, who had made Rochester his home base for more than a decade after a harrowing escape and journey north to freedom aided by his future wife, Anna Murray Douglass (a free black woman), had, by the time of his speech, penned an autobiography and became the preeminent abolitionist of the time.

“Fellow-citizens,” he continued in his speech commemorating Independence Day, “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.”

Image: Frederick Douglass
Frederick DouglassAP

Context here is important: Just two years prior, Congress had passed the Fugitive Slave Act as part of the final provisions of the Compromise of 1850. It provided legal cover for enslavers to ruthlessly pursue human beings across state lines and force them back into servitude. The Compromise of 1850 had tightened tensions between the northern states and the southern states over slavery in the western territories, where white Americans had already expelled indigenous nations from their lands.

Federal policy had thus sanctioned some pretty disturbing and yet legal rules to placate the powerful few, further empowering southern planters and enslavers to hire bounty hunters to (and compel citizens to assist them in efforts to) drag women and men back to hell. Harsh rhetoric and fierce activism was necessary to shock the nation into response and end one of its greatest evils.

Thus, in 1852, Douglass saw fit to tell the nation about herself: His address is as much a powerful historical record of moral outrage as it is a poetic document. A conscientious objector, a dissident and a patriot eschewed silence and civility and issued a torrent of eloquent anger to rouse the spirit of northern whites to advocate the end of slavery for a nation who reifies her origins as a beacon of freedom and the embodiment of the enlightenment era’s highest ideals.

This mythology of American independence — that it is self-evident that all men are created equal — is a fable we continue to repeat, but it is incomplete.

And today, Douglass’ words still rattle and sear the soul. How can anyone celebrate our forefathers independence from tyrannical rule when we are witnessing in real time the separation of families and migrants, who emulate those who for generations sought refuge on these shores for our entire history? How can anyone celebrate the founding of this nation when civil liberties and systemic injustices yet persist for all who are non-white men?

This mythology of American independence — that it is self-evident that all men are created equal — is a fable we continue to repeat, but it is incomplete. We tell and retell a story of exceptionalism, of grit and of one set of experiences while negating a coterie of horrors and atrocity wrought for the fulfillment of enlightenment ideals for one small subset of the idealized.

Reading Douglass' sharpest, most famous rebuke, read in 2018 — after 500 days of the Trump administration — is great to meditate during the 242nd anniversary of this nation's founding.

Image: Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass circa 1880.MPI / Getty Images

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?" he asked. "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 denunciation 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 the United States, at this very hour,” he added.

Douglass' words cut to the quick when Americans have to face cruel acts done in our name.

Today, America at her 242nd year, there are children in detention centers or internment camps scattered across the country. These children, from infants to pre-teens, came from all over Central America and may never all be reconciled with their parents with whom they traveled to seek asylum.

The naive among us cry, “This is not America!”, evidence of a struggle to recall countless moments in the nation’s long story where agents of the state and citizens have brutalized fellow Americans. Slavery’s practice was to separate families, often by brutalizing black women through rape and selling their children to enslavers for profit. In the late 19th century until mid 20th century, the federal government made it a practice to separate Native American children from their parents, placing them in federal-controlled boarding schools whose sole function was to “kill the Indian in him, and save the man,” famously coined by an army officer. And, of course, even family internment is not new in America, after the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II — a federal policy fueled by racial animus not dissimilar to the current administration’s actions against Muslims.

This battle for the narrative of America is a spiritual war in which we are all ensnared, implicated.

And yet, at this bitter hour in America’s story, the insincere among us demand civility from those dissenting against unjust laws and cruelty, even though uncivilized nationalistic populism has been inculcated in the party that once championed the end of slavery, a party which now contorts itself to recognize the humanity of Nazis and white nationalists, at least some of whom have proved themselves willing to (allegedly) plow cars into a swell of crowds engaged in peaceful protests, or tried to convince white, powerful men that the cries of children are cheap appeals at undeserved sympathy.

And the feckless leadership of the minority party has, by and large, acquiesced to the appeals of bad actors who demand civility yet offer none.

“America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future,” Douglass cautioned in 1852. America in her 242nd year faces yet another reckoning. There is a dangerous single story the nation has told itself about who we are and how that came to be. And, if we’re to be honest here, this battle for the narrative of America is a spiritual war in which we are all ensnared, implicated.

We haven’t been honest about who we are; the reckoning we are witnessing is is battle for the soul of America. We’re fighting for our own humanity, less we — or at least the ideal we say that we strive to embody — perishes from the earth.

Syreeta McFadden is a writer and a professor of English in New York. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, BuzzFeed News, and elsewhere.