Friday, July 4, 2008

July 4th for Black Folks

Frederick Douglass
"The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro"

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic.
The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great
men, too, great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen
to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point
from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable;
and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They
were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the
principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory....

...Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak
here to-day? 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. I am not included within the pale of 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 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 to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And
let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose
crimes, towering up to
heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in
irrevocable ruin! I can to-day 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, 0 Jerusalem, let my right
hand forget her cunning. If I 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, to-day, rendered
more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do
not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, "may my
right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue 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 4th
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. 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, or who is not at heart a
slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.

But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say, "It is just in this circumstance
that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on
the public mind. Would you argue more, an denounce less; would you persuade
more, and rebuke less; your cause would be much more likely to succeed." But, I
submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued. What point in the
anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the
people of this country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a
man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it. The slaveholders
themselves acknowledge it in the enactment of laws for their government. They
acknowledge it when they punish disobedience on the part of the slave. There are
seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia which, if committed by a black man
(no matter how ignorant he be), subject him to the punishment of death; while
only two of the same
crimes will subject a white man to the like punishment. What is this but the
acknowledgment that the slave is a moral, intellectual, and responsible being?
The manhood of the slave is conceded. It is admitted in the fact that Southern
statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and
penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write. When you can point to
any such laws in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to
argue the manhood of the slave. When the dogs in your streets, when the fowls of
the air, when the cattle on your hills, when the fish of the sea, and the
reptiles that crawl, shall be unable to distinguish the slave from a brute, then
will I argue with you that the slave is a man!

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

Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful
owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the
wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for Republicans? Is it to be settled
by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great
difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard
to be understood? How should I look to-day, in the presence of Amercans,
dividing, and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to
freedom? speaking of it relatively and positively, negatively and affirmatively.
To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your
understanding. There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not
know that slavery is wrong for him.

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 mastcrs? 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

What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that slavery is not divine; that God did
not establish it; that our doctors of divinity are mistaken? There is blasphemy
in the thought. That which is inhuman, cannot be divine! Who can reason on such
a proposition? They that can, may; I cannot. The time for such argument is

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had
I the ability, and could reach the nation's ear, I would, to-day, 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.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....

...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. While drawing
encouragement from "the Declaration of Independence," the great principles it
contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by
the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation
to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the
surrounding world and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without
interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of
hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work
with social impunity. Knowledge was
then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in
mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled
cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away
the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of
the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth.
Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide,
but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion.
Space is comparatively annihilated. -- Thoughts expressed on one side of the
Atlantic are distinctly heard on the other.

The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The
Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the
Almighty, "Let there be Light," has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no
outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the
all-pervading light. The iron shoe, and crippled foot of China must be seen in
contrast with nature. Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment.
'Ethiopia, shall, stretch. out her hand unto Ood." In the fervent aspirations of
William Lloyd Garrison, I say, and let every heart join in saying it:

God speed the year of jubilee
The wide world o'er!
When from their galling chains set free,
Th' oppress'd shall vilely bend the knee,
And wear the yoke of tyranny
Like brutes no more.
That year will come, and freedom's reign,
To man his plundered rights again

God speed the day when human blood
Shall cease to flow!
In every clime be understood,
The claims of human brotherhood,
And each return for evil, good,
Not blow for blow;
That day will come all feuds to end,
And change into a faithful friend
Each foe.

God speed the hour, the glorious hour,
When none on earth
Shall exercise a lordly power,
Nor in a tyrant's presence cower;
But to all manhood's stature tower,
By equal birth!
That hour will come, to each, to all,
And from his Prison-house, to thrall
Go forth.

Until that year, day, hour, arrive,
With head, and heart, and hand I'll strive,
To break the rod, and rend the gyve,
The spoiler of his prey deprive --
So witness Heaven!
And never from my chosen post,
Whate'er the peril or the cost,
Be driven.

The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Volume II
Pre-Civil War Decade 1850-1860
Philip S. Foner
International Publishers Co., Inc., New York, 1950

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This isn't too complicated. If you disagree with me, I'm more than happy to have an honest discussion. I'm quite open to learning new facts and ideas. I'm dying for a conservative to explain their ideas in a sensible way.

But, I do have rules, and they also apply to those who agree with me. They just get the benefit of my already knowing the fact they'll be referring to.

So, here're the comment thread rules:

1 - Use facts.
2 - Refer to policy.
3 - Don't rely on theories and conjectures. Show me how, for example, a public health insurance option will lead to "rationing" of health care.
4 - No unfounded attacks on any entity.

If you break those rules, I will edit your comment to my own whimsical satisfaction.

Lastly, perhaps most importantly, I'm not going to entertain too much pro-white/racism-denying discussion. I want this to be a space to discuss strategies to fight racism, not space where I have to fight racism. I want anti-racists to be able to come here for a mental respite. If what you're interested in doing is attempting to demonstrate the fallacy of anti-racism by repeating the same ole comments and questions and accusations we hear all the time, please do that somewhere else.

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But Don't Jack My Genuis