On this the day we celebrate our Independence as a nation and the advent of official recognition of our civil liberties, I cannot allow a celebratory spirit to turn my attention away from the rising tide of racism, xenophobia, and fear of the "other" both foreign and domestic.
Many today look for quotes of reverent acknowledgement of this day from Presidents and leaders of today and decades past, if they can deign to seek out such quotes of inspirational platitudes in the name of an unfinished freedom given by people who struggle - though some more honestly and openly than others - to be the imperfect bearers of the continued fight to finish that liberty which begins but certainly cannot end with the likes of Locke and Jefferson (the former who wrote constitutions for the Americas on which slavery was fundamental and who owned stock in the slave trade and the latter who participated in the bartering of human beings more directly) rather than simple displaying some social media semblance of patriotic pride by sharing rote and cliche symbols of nationalistic fervor all too easily dismissed as both silly and celebratory. Yet, rather than turning my attention today to such things the sharing of which I am more than equally guilty, today my contemplation brings to mind less images of eagles and quotations of Presidents past and more the words of Frederick Douglass given on the 76th Anniversary of this day.
Those of you who are likely to read this post are also likely to be familiar with the speech which could not help but temper its celebration of the character of peace-loving men who nobly took up tools of war to secure freedom from tyranny with a scathing critique of the American project that could continue to support human bondage legally, philosophically, and religiously.
As part of this critique, Douglass felt compelled to say deliver the following selections from his longer oratory on the subject:
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
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
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,
Though some would be quick to dismiss these words are relics of a bygone past in which the United States unanimously and altruistically abolished the vile practices of slavery the support of which Douglass meant to shame his audience in the midst of the celebration of freedom and civil liberties, my mind cannot help but fill in new injustices into the voids seemingly left in this speech by the absence of slavery (which have indeed already been filled in by the passive and active decisions of our nation and its social and discursive practices since legal slavery ended).
What does the Fourth of July mean to the victim of a racialized system of mass incarceration?
What does the Fourth of July mean to the seeker of asylum turned away from the nation which boasts of freedom for all?
What does the Fourth of July mean to populations of citizens facing growing distrust from their neighbors because of their national origin, religion, skin color?
What does the Fourth of July mean to those kept in systematic poverty by those whose greed convinces them that the wealth will eventually trickle down but not so far as to those unfit to survive the rigors of capitalism?
What does the Fourth of July mean to the young person seeking to define their identity amidst a landscape full of people denying that such questions of identity can even exist?
What does the Fourth of July mean to any number of new and increasing peoples thrust before the populace as scapegoats for the problems which must be sacrificed or removed in the name of securing the same freedoms which we seek to deny them?
What does the Fourth of July mean to anyone foreign or domestic who hear of inalienable human rights given by their Creator and recite pledges boasting liberty and justice for all while feeling the daily denial of the realization of those same promises in their own lives?
What does the Fourth of July mean to those of us who cannot even see that the Fourth of July might not mean to everyone what it means to us, for those of use who cannot even ask the question of what meaning the Fourth of July might have because we assume it to be so universally understood?
Can we truly take a day to celebrate our freedoms while turning a blind eye to how rallying cries of racism, xenophobia, and exclusion are propelling candidates to the forefront of presidential politics while also leading our allies to harm their own national interest in search of a new "independence day"? Douglass believed that our new global interconnectedness would shed much needed light on oppression everywhere in a way that would force us to acknowledge its existence and work towards ending such things. However, we live in a day where it seems more that this global interconnectedness which has now been more realized is forcing us to retreat each to our own secret national sins to avoid confronting our global ones, and we are clinging most tightly to the voices that urge us not to acknowledge the possibility that we might have sinned at all.
It is in this world where we sing patriotic songs in our church services (the same churches that Douglass labeled as silent partners of oppression if not willing co-conspirators). It is in this world where we claim to be God's own chosen people to live in our land of divine freedom. It is in this world where we will gather together today with large meals and light fireworks.
But, in this world, if we continue to honor the legacy of those harbingers and prophets of our own social ills by turning a blind eye to the persistence of these oppressions, then our celebrations today can ring only as hollow hypocrisies rather than the resounding evidence of freedom.