Frederick Douglass’ Freedom
04 Jul 2019
This week in history, formerly enslaved abolitionist Frederick Douglass bluntly criticized the failure of American commitments to "freedom" in several Independence Day addresses.
"The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro" was delivered to a majority caucasian audience in Rochester, New York. Tomorrow (July 5th) marks its 167th anniversary.
The speech exposed how the Independence Day holiday is inherently tainted by America’s ongoing perpetuation of slavery:
What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: 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.
Those of us who consider Douglass' criticisms a matter of pure history may be reminded they are doing so while reading them on an electronic device likely manufactured by underpaid labor in cramped, prison-like conditions. We may be wearing clothing woven by a child’s hand in a sweatshop, perhaps enjoying coffee, chocolate, or rice produced by forced labor.
Douglass’ main question might also be re-written to point us at some other issues:
"What to the imprisoned migrant child is the Fourth of July?"
"What to the hundreds of thousands of disproportionately black prisoners working as exploited labor is the Fourth of July?"
To groups like this, our jubilant fetishism of the American brand of "freedom" may be as much of a sham as they were to the 19th century slave.
Douglass' rhetoric continually prompts us to re-evaluate our definition of freedom. Some of us may bristle at the notion of publicly denouncing the above modern inequities as openly as we imagine ourselves decrying slavery in the 1800’s. Perhaps advocacy on these issues is unpopular in our social circles. Perhaps we see them as more complicated, less “black and white” moral questions than historical slavery. If so, we can remind ourselves that abolition was a radical concept in its time. Slavery was an integral part of our social and economic infrastructure— at least as much as the other aforementioned injustices are today.
Douglass also prompts us to look at the usefulness of our philosophical or spiritual convictions as they relate to helping us solve the problem:
At the very moment that they are thanking God for the enjoyment of civil and religious liberty, and for the right to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences, they are utterly silent in respect to a law which robs religion of its chief significance and makes it utterly worthless to a world lying in wickedness. Did this law […] abridge the right to sing psalms, to partake of the sacrament, or to engage in any of the ceremonies of religion, it would be smitten by the thunder of a thousand pulpits. A general shout would go up from the church demanding repeal, repeal, instant repeal!
Those of us reading this blog are unlikely to give homage to a god, but many of us are likely to be invested in issues affecting our ability to “worship” as we please. For many of us, this may be our pet issue. We may be quick to react to news about persecution against the nonreligious, or respond to action alerts on issues affecting separation of church and state. Are we prepared to also put that same energy into challenging other policies that rob human beings of their dignity and freedom?
For the nonreligious, we might rephrase this passage:
At the very moment that we are enjoying civil and religious liberty, and for the right to think according to the dictates of our own conscience, are we utterly silent in respect to laws which rob humanism of its chief significance and makes it utterly worthless to a world lying in wickedness?
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