A 2021 Reflection on Frederick Douglass' "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"
"The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn."
The fiery abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass spoke these poignant words on July 5, 1852, during a weekend Independence Day celebration sponsored by the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York. This famous speech came to be known as "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" Douglass, an escaped slave, was one of the leading anti-slavery activists of the 19th century and was never one to shy away from pointing out how America was failing to live up to its ideals of freedom and equality with nearly 4 million of its Black population in bondage. At this time, Douglass was well-known as the publisher of the North Star newspaper, and he traveled on the lecture circuit across the country, fervently advocating for the abolishment of slavery. Nine years earlier, he had joined the Hundred Conventions mission of the American Anti-Slavery Society, which required him to spend six months on the road each year to speak to audiences about the evils and injustices his enslaved brethren were suffering. Douglass' acute Fourth of July remarks no doubt pricked the consciences of his listeners, 600 in attendance that day, as slavery was a major part of national debate and discussion. Many who came out to hear Douglass had probably read Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which was published in March of 1852 and was heavily influencing Americans to recognize the inhumanity of slavery.
One hundred and sixty-nine years have passed since Douglass challenged America on its democratic principles in Corinthian Hall. He would continue to add to his 1852 address in other Independence Day orations as our nation moved closer to the Civil War. As we celebrate July 4 in 2021, our racial and political divisions are so stark that many African Americans and other minority groups of color feel as Douglass did when he bluntly stated that "the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker." Our current struggles of voter suppression and police brutality, along with racial disparities in education, medical care, and unemployment, still heavily weigh upon us. If you read the comment sections in online news articles about the Justice Department suing Georgia over its new voting law, or hammer thrower Gwen Berry turning her back on the flag while the national anthem was played during the U.S. Olympic Trials, partisan sides are blatantly obvious. However, as I reflect on Independence Day, I am choosing to celebrate the progress we have made in the years since Douglass gave the nation a scathing rebuke. In one section of his remarks, Douglass mentioned that while slaves were "ploughing, planting, and reaping, using all kinds of mechanical tools" that there were also "lawyers, doctors, ministers, poets, authors, editors, orators and teachers" among the Negro race. I've always believed that even in America's darkest moments in history, African Americans held on to the vision and spirit of liberty that the Founding Fathers established, which pushed many to accomplish the great feats Douglass acknowledged before slavery ended. And growing up, I would constantly be reminded that my ancestors prayed and trusted in God for their freedom, holding on to hope that life would be better for ensuing generations. Today I am proud and humbled to be a teacher, one of the professional occupations that Douglass listed, and also like Douglass was, I am a journalist who has been blessed with a national platform to address the nation. I know that God opened these doors for me despite the obstacles of racism, discrimination and prejudice, and not even these longstanding barriers can deter His plans for my life. So, on this Fourth of July, I am grateful that I do not have to mourn as Douglass did, but I can rejoice. I truly appreciate the opportunities I have, even though America is far from a perfect union.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University's Lima campus. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @JjSmojc. To find out more about Jessica Johnson and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate, Inc.