African-American leadership on the issues surrounding the civil warH/T comp this!
“What to a Slave is the 4th of July?” by Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was a prominent black leader of the nineteenth century who worked on many causes, including abolition, women’s rights, and social reform. He was also a journalist and newspaper editor. But before Douglass was any of those things, he was a slave, born in 1818 to a female slave impregnated by the plantation superintendent. Douglass changed hands many times, teaching himself to read and write against the wishes of his owners and largely in secret. This passion for books led to his owners lending him out to a “Negro breaker” (a term referring to a slave driver known for a level of abuse and torment that would crush the spirits of a rebellious slave) from whom he escaped in 1838. His escape was orchestrated by a free black woman who he eventually married, and the two settled down in Massachusetts. Upon escaping his shackles, Douglass (formerly named Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey) renamed himself after the hero of “The Lady of the Lake” by Sir Walter Scott; the renaming process was a common way for escaped slaves to shed the shackles of their former owner’s name.
Douglass did not take his freedom lightly, and immediately went to work learning about injustice in America. By 1841 he was an eloquent and popular black leader, and was encouraged to become an agent for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Here, Douglass began to run into some problems. Though self-educated, Douglass was incredibly articulate and poised in his speech, and his mentors became concerned that his eloquence was damaging to his credibility. He was urged to pepper his speech with “plantation language,” which he had no interest in doing as part of his project was to illustrate the equality of black and white in every way. In response to questions of his authenticity, Douglass penned his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, which appeared in 1845. The publication of his book, which explained his escape in great detail, left Douglass open to the threat of capture and re-enslavement, so he fled to England for a time where his supporters and friends raised enough money to buy his freedom. Through it all, Douglass kept speaking — for him, the only answer to the brutality of slavery was force, and he welcomed the Civil War as such a means. He, along with Sojourner Truth, encouraged Lincoln to allow blacks to enlist in the fight against the South, and worked tirelessly to encourage blacks to actually go forward and enlist.
In “What to a Slave is the 4th of July?,” Douglass starts out by painting himself to be incredibly shy and nervous. I think this is a conceit of modesty, given that by this point in his career he was an accomplished speaker. He begins by discussing the meaning and importance of the day, Independence Day, at which he has been invited to speak. He comments that he is pleased America is so young (only 76), because the youth of the country gives hope for the future of it. He reflects upon the Revolutionary War, noting that 76 years on it is easy to see how wrong England was, but in the early days of the unrest with Britain this was not so. There was a time, he says, when the quest for liberty against England was not a fashionable cause to promote. People still did, though, and the movement began slowly. He points out that the revolutionaries started peaceably, but when peace failed they were not afraid to turn to force — and it was force that changed the future and solidified victory.
Douglass points out that black Americans gained nothing on July 4, 1776. The feting of independence is an ironic thing for a man like Douglass, who had to rely on the kindness of citizens of the supposedly oppressive England to buy his freedom from an American slave owner. The freedom embodied by the day is not accessible to black Americans. Douglass is very careful to set up an adversarial relationship, here. He separates himself from the crowd, saying that this is “your” holiday, but not “his.” He does this to illustrate the different perceptions of reality for white and black Americans. He asks if he has been invited to the day in order to be mocked, such is the ridiculousness of asking a black man to celebrate a freedom he was never granted by his government. More HERE