“What to the slave is the Fourth of July?”

Today in the Daily News, Leonard Greene and Frederick Douglass — speaking on July 5, 1852.


‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?’

Question for America: In a country where a white cop feels empoawered to press his knee into a black man’s neck for nearly nine minutes while he is handcuffed and pleading, “I can’t breathe,” why should I celebrate the Fourth of July?

When I’ve spent the last six months watching a disease kill and infect black people in America at an alarmingly disproportionate rate, why should I celebrate the Fourth of July?

And when history tells me in weathered documents, like the Declaration of Independence we commemorate this weekend, that the nation’s Founding Fathers were a collection of noble hypocrites for preaching about the “pursuit of happiness” in a land that had already held black people in bondage for more than 100 years, why, tell me, why should I even think about celebrating the Fourth of July?

Especially now.

In a climate of protest that is achieving momentum on police reform and racial accountability, it seems counterproductive, unseemly even, to pay tribute to pioneers who fought for their own liberty while holding captive an entire race of people, whose families were torn apart.

Independence Day? Independence for whom? For black people who continued to work for free under constant threat of violence, with no education, Independence Day was just like any other day of the week.’

It meant nothing.

“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” asked abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.

Long before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told the nation to “be true to what you said on paper,” and even before President Abraham Lincoln bragged of a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” Douglass wondered about what Independence Day should mean to blacks in America.

Douglass, a mighty orator in his own right, posed the Fourth of July question on July 5, 1852, in a scathing speech at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, a venue that drew some of the best-known abolitionists including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Greeley and Susan B. Anthony.

Emancipation of slaves in New York — which occurred on July 4, 1827 — was traditionally celebrated on July 5 to avoid conflict with national Independence Day observances.

It was there and then that Douglass, an escaped slave, condemned the fraud of celebrating the Fourth of July as a festival of freedom for all while the nation held fast to the shameful sin of slavery.

“Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us,” Douglass said. “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.”

Douglass went on.

“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.”

And what about this hour, today, when police who swore to protect and serve are dispensing brutality and death, when peaceful protesters are preyed upon, and the president gives voice to white power provocateurs?

So, sure, I’ll eat a burger and a hot dog on Saturday, but only because it’s a Saturday, and I like burgers and hot dogs. And I might watch some fireworks, but only because I like pretty things that light up the sky. Light them in November, and I’ll watch it then, too.

And if that makes me a hypocrite, then so be it. I certainly wasn’t the first.

This entry was posted in Politics, Racism, The Facts of Life and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.