On July 5th, 1852, almost 13 years before slavery was completely abolished in this country, Frederick Douglass delivered a speech at an Independence Day celebration, pointing out the hypocrisy in the holiday and in the Founding Fathers’ ideals. OK, so he didn’t exactly make the speech on July 4th, but he was shitting on July 4th up and down the speech, so we celebrating the speech today, gawd dammit.
The speech by the world renowned abolitionist started off somewhat cordial. He acknowledged America (even though he referred to Independence Day as their holiday and not “ours”) and her Founding Fathers’ earned freedom when they fought against British tyranny and taxation. He stated that the America, including the white citizens present at this speech, went on to enjoy the freedoms he was citing.
This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the Fourth of July. It is the birth day of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. … This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life; and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old. There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon.
And then, he got busy.
He got busy getting in America’s ass, pondering whether the ideals of Independence and freedom were extended to him and the people he was representing that day (and everyday). This verbal pondering was, of course, rhetorical. He knew and they knew this independence and freedom weren’t extended to him nor his people.
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 July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.
Douglass goes on to challenge America to look herself in the mirror, proclaiming that if he could, he would MAKE America look at herself for the true coward she is. He would force America and her citizens to be uncomfortable, as he addressed this country with harsh, thunderous words, made to get their attention, not placate to their comfort.
O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. 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. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
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 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.
Douglass doesn’t dare mince words during the remainder of his speech, either. He tears into the hypocritical American ideals. Deeming her a hypocritical fraud, with the blood of horrific black bondage on her hands. His words were incredulous, almost to the point of mocking this country’s idea of what it means to be free and independent.
You declare before the world, and are understood by the world to declare that you “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; and that among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and yet, you hold securely, in a bondage which, according to your own Thomas Jefferson, “is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,” a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.
Douglass’ speech, he admitted, painted a dark picture of America and her hypocrisy of what it means to be free and independent. But even if the speech was dark, it was draped in truth. And so Douglass closed his dark, truthful speech with the thought of hope. Hope that downfall of slavery was near and certain.
Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope.
Leslie McLemore writes about a lot of different shit for Black With No Chaser. He is also the Takeaway Kang and is the father of two beautiful girls, one of which gets on every nerve he has. The other one is sweet. So, you know, balance.
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