Why You Need to be More Like Frederick Douglass on July 4th

Frederick Douglass as a younger man / J.C. Buttre /Wikimedia

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Do you sometimes run out of things to say to white people? Take a few tips from Frederick Douglass and just tell it like it is (And no, Not-My-President Trump, Frederick Douglass is not still alive).

In 1852, Frederick Douglass was invited by the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society (a white abolitionist group) to speak on the occasion of the Fourth of July.

As a former enslaved Black man who taught himself to read and write, Douglass experienced the inhumanities first-hand, yet traveled the country to advocate for slavery’s abolition.

A rare occasion for a Black man in the 19th century, Douglass took advantage of his podium to call into question the very legitimacy of the American institution.

He spoke candidly and honestly.

He spoke truth to power.

But just what did he say? Douglass admonished white Americans for celebrating a holiday embedded in true, red, white & blue hypocrisy.

A nation that “stood” for equality and justice yet enslaved it’s fellow man. A nation that admitted that Black people were human - yet continued to subjugate them.

Take a listen at one of the most historic passages here, narrated by Morgan Freeman. Then, check out some key points to share at today’s BBQ (or whenever you encounter someone of the Caucasian persuasion that needs a reality check).

  • Frederick Douglass: “Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting.”

Frederick Douglass wrote this speech in 1852 - twenty years before the Emancipation Proclamation and twenty-two years before Juneteenth (when slavery actually ended).

This means that while he’s delivering this oratorical masterpiece, hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans were actively - and legally - building the foundations of the American economy.

But whether his audience looked to America’s current state of affairs or past transgressions part of its imperialist expansions, each occurrence is just as revolting to contradict any form of celebration.

  • Frederick Douglass: “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed…For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.”

Do you know what time it is? Folks are trying to “Make America Great Again.” We have conservative politicians changing Congressional rules to appoint their preferred Supreme Court Justice.

We have a long-time racist serving as an Attorney General with an agenda to imprison even more Black and Brown bodies, and cops are acquitted even though video footage clearly shows them murdering Black men and women.

We are in troubling times. And we must act now.

  • Frederick Douglass: “The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.”

The inequities between Black and White Americans grow by the day:

 ...and the list could continue: educational attainment, hiring and promotion, and even media representation.

There are clear inequities between Black and White communities -- and little, if any, justification for common rejoice.

  • Frederick Douglass: “This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn...For you to ask us to join you in celebration is “inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.”

What is freedom? We - as an entire community - were not even free at the time of Douglass’ speech. But you could argue that we’re not free even in the present times.

To celebrate without acknowledging our community’s actual state of affairs would be a mockery to our own people. And for the white abolitionists, to celebrate the independence of some while not able to celebrate with all is but “sacrilegious irony.”

  • Frederick Douglass: If [we] celebrated the Fourth of July, it would be “treason, most scandalous and shocking, and would make me reproach before God and the world.”

Throughout his speech, Douglass takes hits at the Christian faith as running completely contradictory to the institute of slavery. Yet whites manipulated religion to justify the subjugation of Black people.

We, again, see this today through fundamental extremism, the subjugation of the Muslim faith, and the use of the word of God to bring about self-determination for the white race.

So, take a tip from Douglass if you’re really ‘bout that life and use their own religion to demonstrate this contradictory behavior.

These were but a few of Douglass’ iconic words and strategies in the infamous speech, “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July.”

We at #PushBlack encourage you to read the speech in-full. Or, at least, take a look at what has been deemed the most moving passage of all - - and don’t forget to share it with a friend.

“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.”

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