Tuesday, July 16, 2013

"What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?"

In honor of Independence Day this year, 237 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, I decided to reread Frederick Douglass’ speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” delivered on July 5, 1852.  It didn’t occur to me at the time that the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin would be announced before I got my blog post done.

My original thought was to write about the speech as an under-appreciated rhetorical achievement in the history of American letters, but the death of Trayvon Martin and the court case against George Zimmerman dramatizes the continuing relevance of Douglass’ core argument.  And that may be more important than the brilliance of Douglass’ rhetoric.

First, let me say that I harbor no ill will toward the jury in the Zimmerman case.  As I watched the trial unfold on TV these last few weeks, I kept thinking how glad I was that I was not on the jury.  Though I felt that Zimmerman should be held accountable for profiling and stalking Martin while carrying a concealed weapon, I was not persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt that the actual killing rose to the level of murder, or even manslaughter, given the Florida self-defense law. 

Correct verdict under the law or not, though, it does not seem to rise to the level of justice either.  It seems like yet another example of an African American citizen being denied full equality in a nation that just weeks before the verdict had celebrated its promise of individual rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” of equality under the law, and of “liberty and justice for all.” 

Douglass was invited to deliver his oration at Corinthian Hall, Rochester, New York, to celebrate our nation’s founding as a free and independent state, guaranteeing liberty and justice to its people.  It was a ceremonial occasion and, in some ways, Douglass meets expectations by praising the nation’s founders and the high ideals inscribed in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.  But Douglass takes the opportunity to turn the speech into a political one, focusing on the inconsistency of a slaveholding society espousing the values of equality and liberty and calling for the abolition of slavery.  After excoriating his audience for the hypocrisy of celebrating the 4th of July while allowing the injustices and cruelties of slavery to exist, Douglass ends by holding out hope that our nation will someday uphold the values and ideals embedded in our founding documents.

A similar argument could be made today.  How do we celebrate our nation’s founding and its highest civic values on one day and on another day in the same month watch as lawyers in our “justice” system defend their client by justifying racial profiling and the killing of an unarmed black teenager on grounds of self-defense when that client had deliberately stalked that innocent teenager walking home in the rain?  Yes, we can hold out hope that Zimmerman will be held accountable in a wrongful death suit and that someday our nation and its citizens will truly live up to the ideals they espouse and celebrate, but that is cold comfort to those who mourn the loss of Trayvon Martin, who will never again  walk home.

Even though Frederick Douglass had been invited by the white civic leaders of Rochester, New York, to deliver this ceremonial speech, he knew full well that their deference to him was only for superficial show.  That is why in his opening words he presents himself as a modest, self-deprecating public speaker and why he goes on to position himself as an outsider, who, like all African Americans, slave or free, cannot enjoy the full benefits of “your” 4th of July, “your” Declaration of Independence, or “your” heritage of equality and freedom.  And that is also why he presents himself as an educated, well-spoken, eloquent speaker whose performance belies his modesty and indirectly argues for his full equality with those privileged white civic leaders.  Douglass references the nation’s founding documents, the words of its forefathers, the Bible, as well as his own educated white contemporaries and in so doing establishes his literacy, his education, his credibility, and his humanity, despite having been born into slavery.

Repeating a common trope of African American rhetoric, he compares his people to the Biblical Hebrews who suffered under slavery in Egypt and were delivered to freedom in the Promised Land.  He lifts up the suffering of American slaves, drawing on powerful emotional imagery to dramatize their plight: 

“…I see clouds of dust raised on the highways of the South; I see the bleeding footsteps; I hear the doleful wail of fettered humanity, on the way to the slave markets, where the victims are to be sold like horses, sheep, and swine, knocked off to the highest bidder.  There I see the tenderest ties ruthlessly broken, to gratify the lust, the caprice and rapacity of the buyers and sellers of men.  My soul sickens at the sight.”

               Throughout, both directly and indirectly, he holds up the mirror of hypocrisy to those who would celebrate their national Independence Day:

 “            "The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie.”

How many “free” African Americans today join in our 4th of July celebrations with conflicted hearts,
remembering the injustices of the past along with the promises of our founders, smarting from their
own experiences of prejudice and racism, and questioning, like Douglass, whether this 4th of July
celebration includes them?

Although Douglass is speaking of American slavery, he himself was free, though under the Fugitive Slave Law he could be returned to his owner at any time should that owner be identified, and while he had escaped the slavery of the South, he lived with the racism of the North, the very racism of those who had the temerity to invite an escaped slave to deliver their 4th of July oration, as if he were one of them.  Only the blind arrogance of misplaced self-righteousness could expect the victims of racism to praise their oppressors’ history and values.

Yet Douglass concludes with faith in the Constitution, and while that may undercut his verbal assault on American hypocrisy, it nonetheless saves him and us from despair.  His call to action would fail did he not leave his audience with hope of abolishing slavery and racism.

Similarly, may the realization of our own contemporary failures in overcoming color prejudice and racism leave us not in despair but with renewed conviction that our anti-racist words and actions are not in vain and that the dream of people like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King for full equality and justice for all may someday be achieved in our country.  (See also previous blog post on Frederick Douglass *Narrative of an American Slave,* December 2009.)