In 1852, Frederick Douglass delivered one of his most riveting speeches “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” The speech addressed the glaringly hypocrisy of there being a holiday to celebrate America’s “independence” when we were still a slave-holding country.
Unfortunately, many of his words still ring true for Black Americans and other people of color in the US. In a year when there has been increased focus on Black inequality in our nation, I have decided to run this piece with excerpts of Douglass’ original speech intertwined and updated with thoughts of my own. My updates to his speech are italicized and in pick then my own thoughts follow.
AN UPDATED EXCERPT
The fact is, ladies and gentlemen, the distance between this platform and the racism in American life and in the workplace, that I have endured, is considerable — and the difficulties to be overcome in getting from the latter to the former, are by no means slight. That I am here today is, to me, a matter of astonishment, as well as, of gratitude to the one on high.
This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the 4th of July. It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act, and that day. This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life; and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 244-years old.
Fellow-citizens, I shall not presume to dwell at length on the associations that cluster about this day. The simple story of it is that, 244 years ago, the white people, who immigrated to this country, were British subjects. The style and title of your “sovereign people” (in which you now glory) was not then born. You were under the British Crown. Your ancestors esteemed the English Government as the home government; and England as the fatherland. This home government, you know, although a considerable distance from your home, did, in the exercise of its parental prerogatives, impose upon its colonial children, your white ancestors, such restraints, burdens and limitations, as, in its mature judgment, it deemed wise, right and proper.
But your ancestors presumed to differ from the English Monarchy in respect to the wisdom and the justice of some of those burdens and restraints. They went so far in their excitement as to pronounce the measures of government unjust, unreasonable, and oppressive, and not to be quietly submitted to.
Oppression makes wise men and women mad. Your ancestors were wise and if they did not go mad, they became restive under this treatment. They felt themselves the victims of grievous wrongs, wholly incurable in their colonial capacity. The rose up and fought back. They gained their independence, which is what you say this day is all about.
My fellow and sister Americans, your ancestors made good. They succeeded; and even today, 244 years later, you still reap the fruits of their success. The freedom gained is yours; and you, therefore, may properly celebrate this anniversary. The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history — the very ring-bolt in the chain of your destiny, as White Americans. Pride and patriotism prompt you to celebrate the 4th of July to hold your ancestors’ accomplishments in perpetual remembrance.
Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too — great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.
They loved their country better than their own private interests; and, though this is not the highest form of human excellence, all will concede that it is a rare virtue, and that when it is exhibited, it ought to command respect. He or she who will, intelligently, lay down his or her life for their country, is a person whom it is not in human nature to despise. Your ancestors staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country. In their admiration of liberty, they lost sight of all other interests.
They were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed forbearance; but that they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was “settled” that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were “final;” not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation. Their solid manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these current degenerate times, especially in this current era.
How circumspect, exact and proportionate were all their movements! How unlike the politicians of today, especially the entire GOP! Their statesmanship looked beyond the passing moment, and stretched away in strength into the distant future. They seized upon eternal principles, and set a glorious example in their defense. Mark them!
I, like Frederick Douglass, hold the Declaration of Independence in high esteem as “the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny.” and feel that he principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Also, especially under this current treasonous administration I, like Frederick, feel we should “stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.” My business, if I have any here today, is with the present, 244-years later. 2020, which is the accepted time with God and his cause is the everliving now.
Thus, considering the ongoing racist oppression of Black people – in all walks of Life and every socio-economic level in America – I, like Frederick Douglass did 168 years ago today, ask “What can the 4th of July mean to Black people, descendants of slaves, who are still oppressed and in many areas held in racial bondage, in this nation?” As long as there is a George Floyd, a Breonna Taylor, a Michael Stewart, an Amadou Diallo or thousands of other Black people senselessly murdered by the people sworn to protect us, how can we feel free? As long as we are discriminated against in our workplaces and thus unable to achieve our greatest potential both and financially, how are we free? As long as we do not receive loans and lines of credit or VC capital for our businesses, how can we celebrate? As long as there are vast disparities in healthcare, housing and every other marker of in American life, what does independence mean to us?
As Frederick Douglass states, “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future. To all inspiring motives, to noble deeds which can be gained from the past, we are welcome. But now is the time, the important time. Your ancestors have lived, died, and have done their work, and have done much of it well. You live and must die, and you must do your work.”
You must stop thinking that a #BLM hashtag or a black square on your IG or even marching is going to cure 401-years of racist oppression. The real work involves much more. The real work is seeing the generational privilege that you have been afforded based solely on your skin color and what that means for you, especially in your workplaces and businesses. You must recognize that because of the racism, that has been in existence for our entire history, the vast majority of your Black American friends and coworkers have a totally different daily life than you do and do not share that privilege no matter what their socio-economic status or background. Because only when Black Americans and all Americans have access to the same things that you do in every area of American life, will we have cause for celebration on the 4th of July or any other day. Our Founding Fathers, though very flawed men, gave us a roadmap. It is time we actually took the trip to Liberty and Justice and Equality for all.