Douglass's "What is to the Slave the Fourth of July?"
From Bondage to Freedom
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If you're reading this off your computer screen and can understand all that I have to say, you should give yourself a pat on the back and consider that very, very few African American kids in the nineteenth century ever accomplished what you already have! Most of us take for granted the act of reading and writing. We may see school as a grinding, crashing bore. Yet for one young boy in the late 1820s, attending school was something he couldn't even dream about, and being able to read was what he yearned for most in the entire world. He probably wanted to read even more than you might want a Playstation 2.
Frederick Douglass grew up as a slave in Maryland not knowing what year he was born in (estimated around 1818), exactly when his birthday was (some time in February) or who his real father was (he suspected his white master). He saw his own mother only a handful of times before she died. At the age of six, he was taken away from his grandparents and sent to live with another master. There, he witnessed his aunt undergo terrible beatings and other savage acts of violence to which he referred to as a "blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass." Back then, he had no way to communicate either to himself or to other people about what he was experiencing. Thankfully, a move to Baltimore when he was eight would change that.
The Richardsons host a Trekker at their Pittsford, NY home.
His mistress, a pious Christian woman, began teaching Douglass how to read and write. When her husband found out, he went nuts, and at one point shrieked, "A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world." Why did a literate slave incite so much terror in slave masters? Many slave owners operated under the illusion that their slaves were happy and content. If slaves had access to books, they might realize just how degrading life was as a slave, and how they were being deprived of their basic human rights.
This fear proved a justified one, as Douglass's mind was already set on fire, even though his lessons had stopped. He became more determined to accomplish what his master most feared. As he said, "That he most dreaded, that I most desired." Newspapers were snatched away from him and he was never left alone in case he might pick up a book. That didn't stop him though, as he began to exchange bread with poor white neighborhood boys in return for reading lessons. When he was twelve, he discovered the book, The Columbian Orator. In it were arguments for the equality of men, and the evils of holding an entire race in bondage. For the first time, Douglass could experience in words what had until then only been unformed feelings and thoughts in his soul.
Now the story becomes the familiar legend of Frederick Douglass, the self-made slave who ran away to the North from his master around the age of 20. Though a fugitive slave, Douglass began speaking out publicly about the dehumanizing humiliation of being a slave in America and how this institution threatened to destroy America's great experiment in democracy. At the invitation of a few white abolitionists, Douglass gave his first public speech in Nantucket, Massachusetts in 1841. William Lloyd Garrison declared it one of the most eloquent statements he had ever heard on the issue of slavery. Douglass later made tours through Europe. Abolitionists abroad raised the money to purchase his freedom. After the publication of his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass became an international best seller, Douglass was the most famous black man on the planet.
Yet somehow, it doesn't seem quite enough to recognize Frederick Douglass as simply a great anti-slavery speechmaker and writer. He was also a great thinker and political strategist. Early on, he dedicated himself not only to the liberation of slaves, but also to the liberation of all human beings. He was the only male speaker to attend the 1848 Women's Convention in Seneca Falls, and always fought for a woman's right to vote. During a time when the Chinese were being treated cruelly around the country, Douglass was also one of the few who spoke up for them, comparing their conditions to those suffered by African Americans. This dedicated man condemned racism and segregation in the North as fiercely as he did slavery in the South. Many of Douglass's writings have a spiritual, evangelical quality to them, but he reserved his harshest words of all for American Christians: "I love the pure, peaceful and impartial Christianity of Christ. I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land."
Douglass spent his entire life denouncing all of America's hypocrisies, most famously in his "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" speech in Rochester, NY, in which he stated, "What to the American slave is your Fourth 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...There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour."
These criticisms of America were out of love, not spite though. Douglass believed very much in this nation's ideals, and thought that the Constitution and political system could be used to achieve justice for all. This led him to eventually break with his mentor and friend, Garrison, who believed the Constitution was a worthless tool for ending slavery. Douglass also split with Garrison over the issue of nonviolence. Though he did not participate in John Brown's ill-fated Harper's Ferry raid, he supported the effort by letting Brown plot the event from his home. He would later flee the country to avoid being arrested for his ties to Brown.
There are so many amazing aspects to Frederick Douglass's life, a life that impacted nineteenth century America and the world like few others did. But the one overriding thing I take away from Douglass is the importance of reading and ideas. Everything he did was possible due to his sheer will for learning how to read. It would most certainly upset Douglass to know that some of my African American friends have suffered playground beatings and name-calling because they were good in school and thus, "acting white." But perhaps these acts can serve as a powerful reminder that there is obviously still so much more that needs to be done in the name of racial equality.
For now, we can start to best honor Douglass's legacy by picking up a book and realizing what a precious gift we all have: the ability to know and understand another person's thoughts, ideas and visions through the power of the written word. Soak it in.
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Links to Other Dispatches
Daphne - All aboard the Underground Railroad
Kevin - America's open season for "slavecatchers"
Kevin - Editor William Lloyd Garrison wages war with words