“…What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: …mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages…”
**i try to read this every year around this time, as it’s not only a piece of oratory genius, but a necessary validation of the crushing irony of the united state’s independence day celebration. apparently in 1852, the leading citizens of rochester, NY thought it was a good idea to ask a former slave to speak at their 4th of july festivities. escaped slave frederick douglass accepted, and on July 5th, 1852 (11 years before the emancipation proclamation), proceeded to deliver a thoroughly scathing critique of a nation celebrating its own liberty while holding nearly four million of its inhabitants in bondage. Douglass began:**
“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? …I am not that man.
“…I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. 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. 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?
“…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. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future…
“…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 cruelly 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 denunciations 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…”
whats most disturbing is how relevant many of his words still are. next year it will be 150 years since the emancipation proclamation, and nearly half a century after the passage of the civil rights act, and structural racism remains thoroughly intact.
the US has never limited its oppression to people of color. and here i want to avoid the oft used and pretty much always problematic racism = insert other oppression, but i will say that i think the idea that douglass is speaking to — that to celebrate the “liberty” (the privileges) of one group while others remain oppressed is tragically and almost comically fucked — does have much wider applications. even as a white, twenty-something, US passport-holder, as a genderqueer and visibly trans-feminine person, i do not feel free, safe, or protected in this country. and with my (thankfully) long-past teenage boy socialization to blow shit up, i have no desire to participate in celebrating a nation in which the vast majority of states want me unemployed, uninsured, incarcerated, and really, fucking dead.
i have no desire to glorify a nation forged from genocide and theft, baptized in the blood of the indigenous and built by slaves whose descendents still haven’t been made equal.
i have no desire to celebrate the widening income gap, the world’s highest incarceration rates, and record numbers of deportations and detentions of undocumented people.
and i certainly have no desire to do so by simulating those bombs bursting in air — especially while we’re currently dropping REAL FUCKING BOMBS KILLING REAL FUCKING PEOPLE.
in conclusion: happy independence day
everyone, white, able-bodied, straight, gender-conforming, moneyed, US passport-holding dudes.
*sidebar: that link is to the freeman foundation and features a video interview with freeman — the wealthy white canadian man who appears to be deeply interested black history, which spans from the collection of artifacts to interviewing black folks to leading seminars to promoting the teaching of black history. shit like this always feels so complicated; i mean, the man seems sincere in wanting to combat racial ignorance and cultural miscommunication, and some of what the organization does seems OK (though none of it seems power-analysis oriented — a lot of it is about getting along, presumably so you can make more $$ together). and then there’s also this undeniable aspect of cultural tourism and fetishisation in situations like these– not to mention that freeman is yet another white “expert” on race and a (both externally and internally) colonized group of color. (and yes, because white voices are privileged in this society, freeman’s presence here does mean there is less room for people of color to be seen as “experts” in the same area. and he certainly ain’t doing it for free!) how does an organization like this address the space it takes up, as well as its own white/anthropological gaze which itself is a form of neocolonialism –all of which are a part of contemporary racism? i’d definitely be curious as to what folks think. freeman’s institute is obviously very different, but it’s complications remind me a bit of the tim wise conundrum…