Meaning and Movement in the 4th of July

Three years ago on this holiday I posted Fredrick Douglass’ famous address “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” This year, as a flurry of progressive sites in my feed do the same, it’s given me the chance to read it with fresh eyes.

Delivered in 1852 in the midst of an escalating effort to free more than 3 million people from bondage, and rid the United States of the “peculiar institution” of slavery, Douglass’ words illuminated a critical moment. The revolution which had founded this nation, as well as the people who had fought and died in it, were fresh memories for many in the audience. Coming only 76 years after the Declaration of Independence, most in the crowd likely had one or more relatives whose sacrifice made them directly part of this past. Their patriotic exceptionalism, growing ever more palpable with each succeeding generation, further made the occasion of this nation’s birth a personal affair.

Douglass walked the fine line between celebrating the heroism and exceptional character of the Founding Fathers, and with them the fundamental premise of the nation, while chastising the crowd for their own hypocrisy, assuming a man who spoke for slaves could celebrate such an occasion.

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. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.

It is that tension that frames Douglass’ address that I think is lost on some of us today. He can simultaneously use his admiration for the founding principles of this nation (and even their inciting events) to celebrate the occasion in one manner while also framing a critique of present-day inequalities.

I’m not as generous or high-minded as Douglass. I balk at patriotism, often unable to view it for any positive attributes it may possess beyond the horrific acts against humanity it serves to excuse and obfuscate. But I think Douglass is all the more significant for me for this reason.

Douglass is a reminder to us all to seize as our own the aspirational principles embodied in this imperfect nation. He shows us how preserving that optimism is at the heart of meaningful critique. He also provides perspective.

It strikes me as hyperbolic to compare our present with his past while ignoring the differences. He spoke at a time when more than 3 million African-descent people lived in chattel slavery. Draw all the similes you like, our present inequality is but a whiff of this past, even on it’s worst days. It also seems to me careless to take away from his speech only the polemical tone without also confronting his humanistic love for freedom and democracy.

This isn’t a call to celebrate today as all others do; but neither is this a charge to dissent. It is a recognition of our responsibility to continue the work Douglass and others performed in their time–the work of building justice. It is also a bold reminder that our most powerful weapon is the humanism of the principles many uncritically celebrate today.


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