This time of year, many Americans rightly draw attention to Frederick Douglass and his famous speech “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” delivered to white abolitionists in Rochester, New York, in 1852.
As I’ve written before, there is a great deal more to this speech—given years before the Civil War—than those who quote it often understand or remember. In fact, many reproductions of the speech completely omit the last section, which is far more hopeful about the possibilities for America than some of its fans might have you believe.
But even less known is another July Fourth speech Douglass delivered in 1875, a decade after the Civil War and slavery ended. In it, he spoke once again about what Independence Day meant to black Americans, noting first our role in the founding and shaping of America.
If, however, any man should ask me what colored people have to do with the Fourth of July, my answer is ready. Colored people have had something to do with almost everything of vital importance in this great country … We have been with [the white man] in times of peace and in times of war and at all times. We were with him in the hardest hours of the Revolutions of 1776.
Douglass confidently asserts the right of black Americans to share in the celebration of Independence Day because—from the very beginning—we have been part of every great struggle and achievement of our great nation.
Douglass commends to his listeners the works of historian William C. Nell, who wrote “The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution” and “Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812,” urging blacks to take pride in our own American heroes and our unique place in the American story.
Today there is a vocal minority loudly insisting that blacks should reject America for its sins against our ancestors. Our role in America, it insists, has only been one of passive torment, and that’s all the future can possibly hold for us in its current state. And to be fair, I do have a handful of friends who decided to move “back” to Africa, and enjoy living there, albeit subsiding on their American jobs and paychecks.
But most of us either can’t leave or don’t really want to, so what, really, is our most productive path forward?
Just 10 years after slavery, Douglass was urging his fellow black Americans to stop looking backward and get on with the business of building the future.
Douglass never glosses over the evils of forced bondage, which he of course experienced firsthand during the first two decades of his life. But slavery did not define him. “We are no longer slaves,” he urged, “but freemen; no longer subjects, but citizens; and have a voice and a vote with all other citizens. A new condition has brought new duties.”
For Douglass, these new duties include becoming completely self-sufficient. He lamented that centuries of slavery had taught blacks to “respect white men and despise ourselves,” and he understood that self-reliance was essential to self-respect. “The colored race,” he declared, “is capable of living more than a life of dependence, and can think and speak for itself.”
Central to this self-reliance and self-respect was rejecting what today might be called white allyship: those whites that “are heels over head in love with the negro, and want to do him ever so much good.” Their “so-called benevolent societies,” Douglass insisted, “have helped a few, [but] they have injured many.”
It turns out that self-satisfied, progressive whites enriching themselves off the spectacle of black suffering have been around at least since Douglass’ day. These white allies, Douglass explains, “in order to obtain revenue to carry on what they call their work (including of course their salaries which they piously vote themselves by the thousand), they draw the most distressing picture of the black man’s character and condition.”
Douglass’s call to black Americans to embrace this country as our own was not an exhortation to forget slavery or diminish its significance. Douglass himself endured family separation, hunger, and the lash, but he also traveled the world and believed that the best hope for black Americans was rise up in our own strength and demand respect from our former captors by demonstrating our capacity to run our own lives and build our own futures.
Douglass’ charge to blacks to reject the “allies” who would paint us forever as walking wounded, eternally struggling in the shadow of slavery, is particularly timely today.
Racism still exists in America, as it exists in every other country in the world throughout human history, and reasonable people can disagree about the degree to which this affects the lives and prospects of blacks Americans. But surely it affects us less than it did when Douglass spoke, just 10 years after emancipation.
If he, who experienced slavery himself, could urge his fellow blacks to seize our ownership of the American story in 1875, shouldn’t we at least consider that course of action today?
Happy Independence Day.
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