As I re-read Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech, What, to the Slave is the 4th of July, I thought about how Douglass must have felt as he composed this speech. He articulated how he was hesitant about the speech believing that the audience may be there to hear something different. His reluctance sat with me.
Our country (USA) has two worlds. There are people who celebrate the 4th of July as Independence Day — the day the U.S. became a country separate from the British. And, there are others, like me, who see the 4th of July, as… well…. simply the 4th day of July.
As Frederick Douglass said, on July 4th 1852, the enslaved were not free, and would not be for another eleven years (plus an additional two more years for the enslaved in Texas — remember Juneteenth?).
Like Douglass, I don’t see the 4th of July as a day to celebrate independence. There are still many people in our country who are not free. Remnants and consequences of the pseudo independence still exist. Knowing that there were over three million enslaved in the U.S., Douglass encouraged the audience to see the hypocrisy in the idea of Independence Day. He said,
“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I 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.”
Matthew Kay expressed this sentiment in his book Not Light, but Fire (2018). Our nation’s institutional racism has been in full view for hundreds of years. We can be the fire that moves the conversation around racism towards bold and truth-driven, active antiracism. Kay writes,
“He [Fredrick Douglass] called for us to infuse our conversations with fire – to seek out and value historical context, to be driven by authentic inquiry, and above all, to be honest- both with ourselves and with those with whom we share a racial dialogue” (p.4).
Because my birthday is in July, I use the 4th of July as the kickoff to my birthday celebrations. Yes! All those fireworks are for me! I have family in Rochester, NY, so I celebrate the 4th of July by sharing the fond memories of going with my family to Frederick Douglass’ statue and learning about him. Now that I am a parent, I teach our two little boys about Frederick Douglass’ brilliance and excellence. Here are four of things we do to honor the complexity of the Fourth of July.
Although they are a bit young to read his speeches, I paraphrase and pull out key sentences and paragraphs that speak to who they are. For example, I read this section:
“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!”
This section allows me to show the boys a truer narrative — that excellence existed even during enslavement, but also how enslaved and free people struggled to prove that they were human and deserved to be treated with dignity and respect.
As a lover of words, I teach them a new vocabulary word from Douglass’ speech — for example, ‘astonishing’ and ‘enterprises’ — so they can put it on our “spicy” vocabulary word wall. “Spicy” words are the words that extend their vocabulary as they read and talk.
But the most important thing I do on the 4th of July is spend it with my family and friends. I use this holiday (holy + day) to reconnect with my ancestors and my family as a form of resistance and restoration. We learn about the brilliance and resilience of Blackness through Frederick Douglass. We honor him and acknowledge those who were still enslaved as this country gained its “independence.” We rest and prepare for another day to be the fire blazing our country’s path to actualizing full freedom.