Every year, on America’s birthday, I read Frederick Douglass’s essay “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
I was first introduced to Frederick Douglass while in elementary school. My sixth grade teacher, a stern but kind black woman, knew that I, the only black boy in her class, would benefit greatly from his wisdom and example. She was right.
The book “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” was wondrous.
It was the amazing adventure of a man who fights to free his people by first liberating his mind and then his body from the evils of white-on-black slavery.
Douglass tricks gullible white children to teach him how to read.
Douglass beats the hell out of his evil overseer, Edward Covey.
Douglass escapes to freedom, avoiding slave patrollers and other evildoers.
Douglass goes on to fight for the freedom of black Americans — and along the way becomes one of America’s greatest orators, activists and thinkers.
What was there for a black child (and later on an adult) not to love?
In high school I would then discover his landmark speech and essay “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
At first I admired Douglass’ masterful oratory and command of the English language.
There is searing truth:
I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.
Then Douglass lays in the body blows:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To…