Thursday, July 2, 2009

What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?

As we enter the 2009 edition of the 4th of July weekend, it is important to remember why we celebrate this day. Our declaring independence from the mother country of England was a first step in truly becoming a nation. And, while the document explained that all men were created by God as equal, and that all men had the rights of life, liberty (freedom), and the pursuit of happiness, there were individuals not free here in what would become the United States of America. Unfree people were black and red slaves, and white indentures too.

Appropriately, 76 years and one day later -on July 5, 1852 - abolitionist and former fugitive slave, Frederick Douglass, gave a speech at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York. Douglass, never one to bite his tongue, emotionally poured out his feelings on what he saw as the hypocrisy of asking African Americans to celebrate the 4th of July.

Please read the following excerpts without the influence of presentism. Please realize that this was written when there were over 3,o00,000 slaves held in bondage, and in my opinion is not meant to apply in our day and age. Obviously, so much has changed since 1852.

"...For the present, it is enough to affirm the equal manhood of the Negro race. Is it not astonishing that, while we are ploughing, planting, and reaping, using all kinds of mechanical tools, erecting houses, constructing bridges, building ships, working in metals of brass, iron, copper, silver and gold; that, while we are reading, writing and ciphering, acting as clerks, merchants and secretaries, having among us lawyers, doctors, ministers, poets, authors, editors, orators and teachers; that, while we are engaged in all manner of enterprises common to other men, digging gold in California, capturing the whale in the Pacific, feeding sheep and cattle on the hill-side, living, moving, acting, thinking, planning, living in families as husbands, wives and children, and, above all, confessing and worshipping the Christian's God, and looking hopefully for life and immortality beyond the grave, we are called upon to prove that we are men!"

Douglass continued that:

"...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 sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, 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."

Douglass spoke much longer and on many more themes than I have room to include here, but I think that every American would benefit from reading this speech in full. I can only image what it would have been like to hear it in person. If you are interested in reading the full text of the speech you can find it at the following link.

Have a happy and safe 4th of July, and remember to give thanks to those of the past and present who give you your rights and freedoms.

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