Frederick Douglass Asked This Question In 1852. It’s Still Relevant Today.
“This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You 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 [is] inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.”
— Frederick Douglass, “What, to the Negro, Is The 4th of July?”
In 1852, seventy-five years after a small, scrappy former colony of Britain defeated its mother country and made the political leap from monarchical rule to an independent republic, Frederick Douglass delivered inarguably the most profound and deft indictment of “the American way” to ever be articulated out loud by a “negroe” of that period.
Having escaped from the tight jaws of southern slavocracy, Douglass had already established himself as a go-to race consultant, abolitionist, writer, lecturer and rhetorical wizard. He was one of the few black personas to have the ear of the white populace. Now, by invitation and habit, and balancing admiration with advice, Douglass stood before fellow abolitionists, who were white, and charged them with fulfilling the promise of the founders.
He questioned the ideological limits of an infant democracy:
“Why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?”
He noted the fault line between the black and white world:
“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.”
He derided national pretensions and inflation:
“America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”
It is still “false.”
Justice and liberty did not mean Blacks. Still doesn’t. Prosperity and independence did not mean Blacks. Still doesn’t. Democracy did not mean Blacks. Still doesn’t.
And the “immeasurable distance” — the fault lines — was based on the tacit assumption that every value held dear in republican consciousness meant “white.”
No doubt this is what Douglass had in mind when he asked, in an elegantly indignant manner, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?”
These, as well as the quote I opened this article with, are just a sample of the stinging blows dealt on the White American nativist ego in “What, to The Negro, Is The 4th July.” They show why Douglass is justifiably reified.
America’s disfigured relationship with its black population and seemingly oblivious violation of its own principles, embodied for posterity in Douglass’s classic words, laid across pre-Civil War society.
One-hundred and sixty-four years later — after Reconstruction, after Jim Crow, after “contract lending”, after “I Have A Dream”, after The War on Drugs and Crime Bill, after Welfare reform, after Proposition 209 — it lay across 2016 Black America.
And that laying is intentional.
The old guard held racial ascription as incidental, a blemish, on American values of democracy and independence. The new guard knows better. It knows that race was not incidental, but, rather, insurance.
That was the case in Douglass’s time. It’s still the case now.
Things are better. We’ve had a president … who happens to be Black. We’ve had #OscarsSoWhite. That’s progress, I guess. It’s worthwhile pointing those things out. Hopelessness is the worst kind of drug addiction.
Black citizens have worked and struggled and marched, tirelessly, to expand the definition of citizenship and, by extension, evolve democracy, evolve America, as state organism.
Likely, for this reason, many Black families, while aware of the contradiction and deep historical tension signified by the 4th, may opt not to reserve any mental space to this problematic of race. They will settle on ritualized celebrations, fireworks, barbecue, beer.
This would be a mistake. Not the part about fireworks, barbecue, and alcohol, but downplaying the problematic of race.
2016 America is not 1852 America. It is not 1870 America. It is not 1955, ’63, ’64, or ’65 America either.
However, as the proverbial saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
We are still in the grips of a race wealth gap.
We are still in the grips of a high Black unemployment crisis.
We are still in the grips of a Black infant mortality crisis.
We are still caught in the grips of a Black education crisis.
We are still in the grips of a Black criminal justice crisis.
For all these reasons, we are still obligated, in 2016, to question, as Douglas did, the relevance of the 4th of July to Black lives:
“What, to [the American Negro], is your 4th of July?
And to proffer a response in some form of his answer:
“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.”