Frederick Douglass and July 4th

My wife and I have started a tradition in our home.  On July Fourth we read aloud the great and noble speech of Frederick Douglass he delivered in Rochester, New York on July 4, 1852.  It is my opinion that this should be read aloud across the nation every Independence Day.  Today, Douglass would be called un-patriotic, un-American and told to “love it or leave it.”  He would be denounced by the Religious Right, “American Exceptionalist” politician-preachers and FOX “News.”  You can read the speech here.  Or hear James Earl Jones recite it here.  I urge you to read it, or read it again, and again.  Does this make a person less of a patriot, less an American, or stronger in the conviction that America is indeed great, but not greater than “all other nations,” or “God blessed” more than any other?  We should be continually humbled by our humanity and our history of inhumanity, not further emboldened to prove ourselves over and above all others.

I would call Frederick Douglass a great American, and great American patriot.  But first I would listen closely to what he wrote to the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison in 1846 during Douglass’s speaking tour of Britain and Ireland.  If one simply adds to the injustice toward race any other injustice (toward people who are homeless, mentally ill, gay, immigrant, the forever “ex” convict. . .), one can easily see his powerful and timeless truth.  This truth-telling American may be the truest of patriots, the best model for the nation and for generations ahead, perhaps surpassing those we idolize in our cheapening disrespect by calling them “heroes”:

“I have no end to serve, no creed to uphold, no government to defend; and as to nation, I belong to none.  I have no protection at home, or resting-place abroad.  The land of my birth welcomes me to her shores only as a slave, and spurns with contempt the idea of treating me differently; so that I am an outcast from the society of my childhood, and an outlaw in the land of my birth. . . .  That men should be patriotic, is to me perfectly natural; and as a philosophical fact, I am able to give it an intellectual recognition.  But no further can I go.  If ever I had any patriotism, or any capacity for the feeling, it was whipped out of me long since, by the lash of the American soul-drivers.”

He’s not done, nor should he be.  Anyone and everyone who has felt the sting of exceptional American arrogance and bigotry can feel these words. . .

“In thinking of America, I sometimes find myself admiring her bright blue sky, her grand old woods, her fertile fields, her beautiful rivers, her mighty lakes, and star-crowned mountains.  But my rapture is soon checked, my joy is soon turned into mourning. . .when I remember that with the waters of her noblest rivers, the tears of my brethren are borne to the ocean, disregarded and forgotten, and that her most fertile fields drink daily of the warm blood of my outraged sisters; I am filled with unutterable loathing, and led to reproach myself that anything could fall from my lips in praise of such a land.  America will not allow her children to love her. . .  I will continue to pray, labor, and wait, believing that she cannot always be insensible to the dictates of justice, or deaf to the voice of humanity.”

Harsh critique to be true.  But to be true is the point and he nails it.  May there come a day soon when “patriotic Americans” can gather to celebrate independence along with inter-dependence, justice and liberty as they Tell the Truth about the past and present of this land.  Maybe there will be less bombs bursting in air, less parading of our “exceptionalism,” less wrapping our prejudice in stars and stripes, less singing our own praises as a “God blessed” land, and more owning our faults and learning hard lessons from our long history of mistakes and injustice toward others, including our own people.  And never be blind but circumspect and self-critical about our present problems and desperate need for radical solutions.  May the day come when we can read the words of Frederick Douglass every July 4 and hear his unique bell of liberty ringing in our ears.  Not a sound as pleasant as we wish or expect, but true to the spirit of the land that has a hard time with the ringtones of Equality and Humanity.  We need the harsh peal at times to wake us up, though we be lazy and drowsy in our freedoms!  (see this post on Beyond God).

May we come to know Frederick Douglass as our brother, our fellow citizen and, in a profound sense, another Founding Father late in coming but not too late for our common destiny.

{I urge you to read the full text and context of these quotes.  See My Bondage and My Freedom (1855)}

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About Chris Highland

Author, teacher, nonprofit manager, photographer, former minister, interfaith chaplain View all posts by Chris Highland

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