As a child, I was always emotionally apathetic to the spectacular display of fireworks and the school lessons on the history of America’s independence. The most exciting thing about this time of year, for me, are the cookouts comprised of meats simmering away on the grill and the communal spirit of breaking bread with family members not seen for months.
In school, the story of Independence Day comprised a rather large portion of our American History curriculum. I learned and memorized the key players in the American Revolution and almost every year was given a typed copy of the Declaration of Independence to study for quizzes and tests. But never once in my school career did anyone mention Frederick Douglass’ famous “What to the Slave Is The Fourth of July,” decrying the Fourth of July jubilation. Perhaps the spirit of resistance and revolt were only pertinent when it came to how America won its independence, not to how America achieved and maintained its power — through the rod and whip of slavery.
Perhaps the spirit of resistance and revolt were only pertinent when it came to how America won its independence, not to how America achieved and maintained its power…
I was introduced to Douglass’ speech through my grandfather, an active man who made it a priority to expose me to black culture from a young age. I cannot quite remember the last time I accompanied him to a reading of “What to the Slave Is The Fourth of July” but I remember the feeling I had. I knew that the Fourth of July wasn’t for me.
Douglass gave his seminal “What To The Slave Is Fourth of July” speech in 1852 at Corinthian Hall in New York, addressing the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. He criticized the independence of America, an independence that meant little for the slaves still toiling away in the American South. Up north, free black citizens still bore the burden of living in a systemically racist society and were offered no protection by law from housing discrimination, segregated school systems or even bodily harm. “I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us,” Douglass said in his speech. “I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us.”
“What To The Slave Is Fourth of July?” laid bare the hypocrisy of a nation so eager for independence, yet so reluctant to bestow those same freedoms to the enslaved people driving the country’s economy forward. Douglass also turned a critical eye on the church, accusing slaveholders of using the Bible to justify the subjugation of slaves though in reality, the religious tome emphasized the freedom of all people. He believed that the church, in particular, could play a large part in the abolition of slavery.
Eleven years passed, after Douglass’ speech, before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. It wasn’t until 1865 when the last enslaved people in Texas learned that they were no longer in bondage. But even after slavery was abolished, freedom and independence were empty, hollow words.
Douglass’ speech is as relevant today as it was in 1852. There’s a reason why groups around Boston continue to recite the speech, year after year during the week of the Fourth of July. Our current political climate speaks volumes on our country’s interpretation of freedom. If you are not white, your freedom is conditional, not a guarantee.
Protests are erupting across the country as more and more evidence of the inhumane treatment of migrant children in detention centers at the border circulates. In these detention centers, migrants are stuffed into small areas and cells, without reliable access to food and water. Reports tell the story of children in these centers, who have no access to regular meals or medical care and are without clean clothing or a way to bathe themselves. At least seven children have died while in immigration custody since last year.
Some may argue that because the people in these detention centers are not American citizens, they aren’t guaranteed the rights that come along with citizenship. But what’s troublesome is that the United States, a nation that claims to be the land of the free, has a long history of denying citizenship to people who don’t fit within certain paradigms. At one point, black people born on U.S. soil weren’t considered citizens and America employed this same argument to rationalize their immoral treatment. Racism has been codified again and again, from internment camps for Japanese Americans to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Putting migrant children in cages, without reliable access to basic human necessities, is the newest iteration of this great American sin.
There is great irony in the pomp and circumstance of the Fourth of July, in the number of free musical concerts, fireworks and other themed activities.
What, to us, is the Fourth of July when our freedoms are provisional and subject to alteration? What does the Fourth of July actually stand for?
What, to us, is the Fourth of July when our freedoms are consistently infringed upon by a government meant to uphold those very freedoms? What, to us, is the Fourth of July when our freedoms are provisional and subject to alteration? What does the Fourth of July actually stand for? Does it mean something? Or is it an empty promise?
“The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me,” Douglass said in his speech. “…This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.” His assertions are ones we must meditate on when the time comes to pull out the fireworks and light up the grill, when it’s time to head down to the Esplanade to watch the lights explode over the Charles River.
This year, I was unable to attend the annual reading of Douglass’ speech in the Boston Common and I’m not sure if my grandfather and I will ever attend together again. But the lesson I learned, all those years ago alongside him, is timeless. For us, the Fourth of July remains a hollow statement, a shallow symbol of a freedom that is only a mirage for many. It remains a festivity with no substance, a celebration with no soul.And every year, we are reminded that while we are able to participate in the party, the party isn’t for us. We are only visitors who may or may not be asked to leave once the party is over.