What, to Black America, is Your Fourth of July?

Every fourth of July, I consider it my patriotic duty to re-read Frederick Douglass’s stirring essay “What, to the Slave, is Your Fourth of July?” It is rather long (as speeches tended to be in the age of no television, Gettysburg Address being the most noteworthy exception), but it is certainly worth the time to read it in full, for yourself.

In the speech, Frederick Douglass flawlessly employs a dialectic to celebrate the principles of liberty embodied by the Founding Fathers and the revolution against British tyranny (thesis), lament that the existence of slavery precludes these principles from extending to Blacks in America (antithesis), and declare his commitment to bringing about Black equality (synthesis). This propositional paragraph still haunts as we consider the state of Black America today:

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?

Douglass does not leave us wanting for an answer:

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 mineYou may rejoice, I must mourn.

Certainly Douglass was addressing the institution of American slavery, thus the anger and bitterness in his words can be understood and appreciated by all in the 21st century. Yet, the idea that Emancipation and the end of Jim Crow has completed the Black march towards freedom and equality is simply untrue.

The National Urban League just released its 40th anniversary “State of Black America” that measures how well Blacks and Hispanics are doing compared to Whites in several different categories including economics, health, education, and social justice. I invite you to read the executive summary and full report, but the bottom-line is the Black index is 72% and the Hispanic index is 78%. This means that in terms of social equality, Blacks are 27% less-well-off and Hispanics are 22% less-well-off than Whites in America. The statistics are rather depressing and cause enough for a radical re-imagination of social justice in America. Yet it was the visceral examples of American indifference to Black life (Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and the list goes on and on) that has reinvigorated Black protest in the form of Black Lives Matter.

Perhaps one day, the Fourth of July can truly and unequivocally belong to all of us. To that end, I share Frederick Douglass’s hope and commitment to resistance of Black inequality and oppression as stated in his synthesis:

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

About Jermaine M. McDonald

Dr. Jermaine M. McDonald is co-founder and editor of Symposium Ethics. He completed his PhD in Ethics and Society from Emory University in the Spring of 2015.

Jermaine M. McDonald

Dr. Jermaine M. McDonald is co-founder and editor of Symposium Ethics. He completed his PhD in Ethics and Society at Emory University in the Spring of 2015. Jermaine researches interesting convergences between race, religion, and politics with the aim of analyzing how various groups bring their religious ideas of the common good to bear in U.S. society.

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