Black Looks - Including an African LGBTIQ+ Archive

Black America, Racism, Slavery

The Fourth of July

Happy Fourth of July!

Below is the speech given by Frederick Douglass on July 5th, 1852. No truer words were ever spoken about the United States’ Independence. Even today, his words, his accusations, his veracity are just as appropriate.

Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that the dumb might eloquently speak and the “lame man leap as an hart.”

But such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. 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 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? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn that it is dangerous to copy the example of nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can today take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people.

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! We wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”

Fellow citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! Whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorry this day, “may my right hand cleave to the roof of my mouth”! To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then, fellow citizens, is American slavery. I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view. Standing there identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine. I do not hesitate to declare with all my soul that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this Fourth of July! 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. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. 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! “I will not equivocate, I will not excuse”; 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….

For the present, it is enough to affirm the equal manhood of the Negro race. Is it not as astonishing that, while we are plowing, planting, and reaping, using all kinds of mechanical tools, erecting houses, constructing bridges, building ships, working in metals of brass, iron, copper, and secretaries, having among us lawyers doctors, ministers, poets, authors, editors, orators, and teachers; and 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 hillside, living, moving, acting, thinking, planning, living in families as husbands, wives, and children, and above all, confessing and worshiping the Christian’s God, and looking hopefully for life and immortality beyond the grave, we are called upon to prove that we are men!…

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….

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.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms- of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, 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.

13 Comments

  1. Sokari

    I find looking at this bird disturbing as it embodies all the oppression and destruction by this Empire known as the United States of America both within and beyond it’s borders from it’s very beginning before independence up until this day in 2007.

  2. Comment by post author

    Yes. The bird is scary and disturbing. Actually, we can take it down if you want…

  3. Sokari

    Kym@ yes that would be good – its gives me the creeps:) to be honest though not the birds fault. I feel like its going to jump out and rip me to pieces!

  4. Comment by post author

    Sokari…the bird has been removed. 😀 But, if folks would like to see the sweet, innocent bird that scared the shit out of you…they can check out this link!: http://askthisblackwoman.com/2007/07/04/fourth-of-july.aspx

  5. Sokari

    Kym@ Thanks – innocent yes – sweet, not so sure – wouldnt want to come across it even in broad daylight!

  6. This was a very moving speech from Douglass. They don’t talk about this much in history classes, but it is so important. Frederick Douglass was a true patriot. There are many who think of the flag waving, star spangled citizen as a patriot, but a patriot challenges his/her country and holds it accountable for blatant injustices. Patrick Henry shouted, “Give me liberty or give me death” and he was considered a patriot. Malcolm X shouted, “…by any means necessary” and he was considered the angriest black man in America.

  7. Thank you so much for posting this. He sums up so many of my feelings about the US.

  8. Sokari, I quite liked the bird actually. Not liked it in an aesthetic sense necessarily, but it got me thinking about a statement I heard in a voice-over at an art exhibition about white America’s appropriation of the eagle, a Native American symbol (but I would have to check this out), to become a symbol of its own “liberty” and “freedom.” Just a thought.

  9. Sokari

    Annie@ It was what it represented with the embossed (right word?) stars and stripes that offended me – turned it into something ugly and scary that looked like it would jump out and consume me. The bird itself is innocent and in another photo I would probably feel very different – think of it as a symbol of life and living and being free to roam without borders – i could go on but……

  10. The eagle is a wonderful and majestic bird of prey to observe from a distance but I would advise you not to get too close to their territory or young. Fear the eagle honey ’cause the eagle fears nothing within its natural biosphere, especially the female eagle.

    Of course many men (and some women) have given the symbolism of the eagle a very bad name down through the ages___ take the NS regime of Nazi Germany or the Roman Legions and ancient Rome for example. Which reminds me, has the eagle ever been used as an important symbol in any sub-Saharan African societies and cultures?

    One of America’s founding fathers, Ben Franklin, was not pleased with the choice of the American Bald Eagle as the nation’s symbol and wrote a letter to his daughter Sally in 1784 expressing his thoughts that the native American wild turkey would have been a much better choice. Here is the URL to a site that explains how the eagle was chosen as our national symbol vs. the turkey or the eastern timber rattlesnake or some other symbolism borrowed from Africa, Europe or Asia. I of course favor the American Bald Eagle since we are related but the artist rendition of this majestic bird at Kym’s place is to simply evoke a sense of patriotism and/or to sell something to the American public.

    Greatseal.com
    The eagle, Ben Franklin, and the turkey
    http://www.greatseal.com/symbols/turkey.html

    What would Frederick Douglas think?

  11. Okay…this post was supposed to be about Frederick Douglass’ radicalism and how the American Empire hasn’t changed since the days of slavery, NOT about the bald eagle pic. I randomly “stole” the pic from the internet. I typed in “American flag” in the Google search and the two pix I really liked were the three blondes wrapped in American flags and the bald eagle. I chose the bald eagle because I thought it would cause the least drama.

    So thank you to Stephen and Jeff for appreciating the post!

  12. Oh. Yes, about the radical abolitionist Frederick Douglas. Here is what the Publisher’s Weekly had to say about a new (2001) book by Harvard Prof. John Stauffer titled “The Black Hearts of Men: Radical abolitionists and the transformation of race in America”:

    Two of the four “passionate outsiders” (which would have been a better title) presented here were black: Frederick Douglass and doctor-scholar James McCune Smith. Two were white: John Brown and philanthropist-reformer Gerrit Smith. Brought together at the inaugural convention of Radical Abolitionists in June of 1855, they formed an interracial alliance of a kind that would not be seen again until the civil rights movement. Harvard history professor Stauffer offers an account of these four lives joined for a historical moment by “their vision of a sacred, sin-free, and pluralist society, as well as by their willingness to use violence to effect it.” Stauffer shows how the four worked together on temperance and feminist issues, party building and other political work along with their antislavery activities, exploring the practical and ideological glue that held them together. A splendidly illustrated excursion into the American fascination with daguerreotype shows the four using that form to further their public image, an image the 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry and its federal arsenal destroyed, along with all their careful bridge-building. Brown’s Harper’s Ferry raid was discussed beforehand by all the men, but the actual act dimmed the revolutionary fervor of all who remained (Brown was executed) and probably made for the first, albeit unofficial, casualties of the Civil War. While the author’s plain style doesn’t include much imagistic amplification of events, this book offers an intense look at the mechanics of freedom. (Feb. 7)Forecast: The Unites States’ violent internal conflicts over its values, via raids such as Brown’s, can probably be better imagined now than at any time over the past 50 years at least.

  13. Kym

    From now on, I will describe myself as a “passionate outsider”. Thanks Black River Eagle.