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'What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?': "Free"dom and Empty Promises

'What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?': "Free"dom and Empty Promises

For millions, July 4th in the United States comes with celebrations and triumph, attending cookouts in backyards and on patios, spending time on the beach, watching fireworks, and enjoying time with family and friends. American flags are seen everywhere and feelings of patriotism and nationalism (which are problematic, but that’s another discussion) are blatant, and are often accompanied by speeches about America’s greatness, continued perseverance, and whatever else can be said to feed the minds of people.

Other Fourth of July commemorations across the country give attention to a different side of the story, looking at America’s definition of independence and pointing out hypocrisy when it comes to freedom and justice. July 4, 1776, enslaved people were not free. Slavery played a key role in our nation’s history and forms of modern-day slavery continue to exist in our country and around the world. One way this is discussed is with the Frederick Douglass speech known as “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July.” This speech criticized the independence of America. This independence meant nothing for slaves that were living in fear, turmoil, and brutality in the American South. In northern states, free black citizens still dealt with the burden of living in a systemically racist society where they were offered no protection from housing discrimination, insufficient wages, segregated school systems, and even bodily harm.

Frederick Douglass. circa 1850.  Image: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Frederick Douglass. circa 1850. Image: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Often, people want to omit history for the sake of holidays and other times of celebration, but it is important to remember and recognize history’s entirety. Yes, even on the Fourth of July. You can be glad we have our independence as a country and still acknowledge history’s truths and hypocrisy. I promise, you can do both if you choose to.

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery, and escaped to Philadelphia in 1838. He became a powerful speaker and a famous black abolitionist in our country’s history. His speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” was delivered on July 5, 1852 at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York, during a time when our country was in a heavy debate over the question of slavery. The Ladies Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, NY had invited Douglass to give his speech on July 4th, but he chose July 5th instead.

He addressed an audience of around 600 people at Corinthian Hall and he started by acknowledging the Founding Fathers of America, but he pointed out their hypocrisy of freedom and said that more work needed to be done to ensure that all citizens enjoy “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” More than 150 years after emancipation, this is still relevant. Douglass printed the speech in his newspaper, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, and published 700 copies of it in pamphlet form.

Interior of Rochester’s Corinthian Hall, 1851. Image: University of Rochester

In one of the most famous parts of this poignant speech, Frederick Douglass talked about what it was like to be in a country where freedom and independence were not for black people and enslaved people:

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? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?…

 I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of 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 light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn…

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 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.”

This speech also foreshadowed what was to come: the Civil War. “For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder,” he said. “We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.”

I tell people all the time how important historical context is in order to gain a full picture of why something happened when and how it did. The timing of this iconic speech should not be viewed in a vacuum. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in the spring of 1852. Written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the book shared ideas about the injustices of slavery, pushing back against dominant cultural beliefs about the physical and emotional capacities of black people. Her critics were everywhere and the book was causing uproars all over the country. At the same time, America was wrestling with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850—a law that required the United States government to actively assist slave owners in recapturing their fugitive slaves, even if the escaped slaves were not in FREE states. In part of his speech, Douglass acknowledges the Fugitive Slave Act. He said, “…The power to hold, hunt, and sell men, women, and children as slaves remains no longer a mere state institution, but is now an institution of the whole United States. The power is co-extensive with the Star-Spangled Banner and American Christianity.”

To top everything off, 1852 was a presidential election year and campaigns were heating up that summer. The political moment was THERE!

What Douglass said in his speech was what he said said in speeches across the country year-round. In the years after 1852, he continued to add to this famous speech. After President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Douglass still used July 5th to draw attention to the nation’s continued hypocrisy and injustices. On July 5, 1875, one line of his speech was, “If war among the whites brought peace and liberty to the blacks, what will peace among the whites bring?” Context is important here, too, because this was the era of Reconstruction, which brought its own fears, like violence from the Ku Klux Klan and laws which continued to oppress and discriminate against black people.

In his famous speech, Frederick Douglass also did not hesitate to call out the church and how it was also responsible for injustices in America:

”But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines. who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity.

…My spirit wearies of such blasphemy; and how such men can be supported, as the “standing types and representatives of Jesus Christ,” is a mystery which I leave others to penetrate. In speaking of the American church, however, let it be distinctly understood that I mean the great mass of the religious organizations of our land. There are exceptions, and I thank God that there are. Noble men may be found, scattered all over these Northern States, of whom Henry Ward Beecher of Brooklyn, Samuel J. May of Syracuse, and my esteemed friend on the platform, are shining examples; and let me say further, that upon these men lies the duty to inspire our ranks with high religious faith and zeal, and to cheer us on in the great mission of the slave’s redemption from his chains.”

Douglass accused slaveholders of using the Bible to justify the subjugation of slaves though in reality, the Bible emphasized the freedom of all people. He believed that the church could play a large part in the abolition of slavery, and that the church should.

Nelson-Atikins Museum of Art

Nelson-Atikins Museum of Art

A lot of the time, I hear people say that our country was founded on great principles and goals. The thing is, these didn’t apply to me and my ancestors. America continues to struggle to TRULY live up to these principles. Again, this isn’t to say you can’t be glad our country is “free”, but understand the complexity of freedom and what it really means.

Take a look at our country right now. Our political climate tells more about America’s interpretation of freedom than any document ever will. James Baldwin once said, “I cannot believe what you say because I see what you do.” That is what I say to America. Let me also add that if you are not white, your freedom is conditional, not guaranteed.

My question is what, to us, is the Fourth of July when our country, our government, and our laws, that are supposed to uphold our freedoms, consistently infringes upon them? What does the Fourth of July really stand for?

What, to us, does life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness really mean? It should mean a black person can walk home, wearing a hoodie, and not get shot and killed. It should mean that people who are running from violence are able to see asylum in our country. It should mean black women can wear their hair in its natural form to work and school and not be told that it is not allowed. It should mean you are not labeled as a terrorist simply because you are wearing a hijab. It should mean your name will not determine whether or not you will get called for an interview. It should mean your skin color is not a crime. It should mean these things, but it doesn’t.

The truth is, if you are not white, your freedom is conditional, not a guarantee.

”What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” continues to speak to our frustrations caused by the gap between the ideals of our country and the realities we witness every day. I don’t know if you fall into the “we” category, but I definitely do.

I hope you all enjoyed your 4th, ate some good food, and found a way to navigate celebrating if the 4th was tough for you.

(You can click this link to read all of “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” on Teaching American History.)


Sincerely, Lettie is a Podcast!

Sincerely, Lettie is a Podcast!