On July 4, 1776, when the United States of America gained its independence from Great Britain, Africans in America were still in slavery. The nation talked about independence, but there was none for the African.
The major celebrated events which led up to the bloody battle between the former colonies and the former mother nation have been drilled into our heads in school, but they should mean as little to us now as they must have meant to us then.
Why should the African in America give one hot damn about the Boston Tea Party, when we enjoyed no more freedom than the very tea dumped into the Boston Harbor at the time?
Why should we celebrate the bombs bursting in air, when the nation had already declared war on us?
Why should we celebrate the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, when we were making midnight rides for our own freedom?
And, why should we hold any endearment to the 4th of July when it took another hundred years for the new nation to abolish its peculiar institution?
Frederick Douglass, a former slave turned Abolitionist Movement leader, perhaps the most recognizable African in America during the Civil War era, asked America the very same question in 1852 in a speech entitled “What to the Slave Is The 4th of July?”
But first, some of you may ask: Who to America was Frederick Douglass, that he was invited to make an Independence Day Speech on July 5, 1852 in Rochester, New York?
It is important to highlight the fact that Douglass was a leader in the Abolitionist Movement, because modern history books mention his activities or the activities of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad in passing. Abolitionists were painted as largely benevolent whites who stole frightened darkies away in the night.
It is important to celebrate Frederick Douglass because of what he represented and what the righteous historians revealed to us, which is that many of Douglass’ anti-slavery speeches were delivered to conventions of Blacks-free and enslaved alike.
Douglass’ weekly newspaper, The North Star (founded in 1847) was a crucial anti-slavery instrument and Douglass’ position as a “Station Master” of the Rochester, New York terminal of the Underground Railroad must be underscored, because these activities took place as early as 1851.
In 1858, the Freedom Fighter John Brown was given quarters for safety and secrecy in Douglass’ home, while planning one of the few slave revolts documented by mainstream American history-the Raid on Harper’s Ferry.
Yes, while America had begun celebrating “Independence Day” on the 4th of July, Africans in America were still fighting for their independence from the most brutal form of slavery in the history of man.
While America was fighting against itself to remain a sovereign nation, Douglass was speaking out against slavery in England, Scotland and Ireland.
Frederick Douglass understood that the African in America would be crucial to the war to mend the nation and urged the Union to use Black Troops in 1861-before the abolition of slavery, before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued and before the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was made. In addition to becoming a recruiter for the Army, Douglass’ own sons, Lewis and Charles Douglass joined and Frederick Douglass, Jr. became an Army recruiter.
Recognizing the promise of the Union to deliver freedom for Blacks in all of its states, some 180,000 Africans in America served in the Civil War, fighting against the Confederacy.
In 1852, Frederick Douglass spoke of America’s hypocrisy when dealing with the issue of slavery.
He mused: “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth 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 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 did not speak with an apologetic or covert tongue that day. No, this noble man of princely mien and grace spoke with dignity and righteous indignation, as he outlined the emptiness of the Independence Day celebration for the African in America.
“I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary,” he exclaimed. “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 of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me by asking me to speak today?”
Douglass mocked the nerve of America to at once invoke the Bible and the Constitution in hypocrisy.
He queried: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the Constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery-the great sin and shame of America!
Douglass made a clear speech that day, which left no question as to where he stood, even in the midst of whites who would have gladly received a weaker speech, which they certainly expected.
“I will not equivocate, I will not excuse,” he delivered. “I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, shall not confess to be right and just….”
Douglass made the audience aware that he was not there on their agenda, even if on their invite.
He articulated with strength: “What–am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong? No! I will not. I have better employment for my time and strength than such arguments would imply.”
Douglass’s speech should be learned and recited by America’s school children each year. He made it clear that there is no rival to America for the legacy of its peculiar institution.
“Go where you may, search where you will…lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival,” said Douglass.
So, on the 4th of July each and every year, we should celebrate the life of Freedom Fighters such as Frederick Douglass. And in doing so, we are to illustrate the duality and hypocrisy of America, which reigns covertly still, even as liars let fall from their lips: “Let Freedom Ring!”
Happy Birthday, America, you dirty old bitch!
Darryl James is an award-winning author of the powerful new anthology “Notes From The Edge.” James’ stage play, “Love In A Day,” opened in Los Angeles this Spring and will be running all Summer. View previous installments of this column at www.bridgecolumn.proboards36.com. Reach James at firstname.lastname@example.org.