IN 1852, FREDERICK DOUGLASS TOLD US THE REAL MEANING OF THE 4TH OF JULY — AND AMERICAN PATRIOTISM

I love America, but it’s complicated. There’s a hatefulness, these days, that’s associated with patriotism. It’s ugly nationalism: the people who are shouting their allegiance the loudest always make a point of saying other nations suck, or that certain recently arrived or otherwise brown Americans don’t deserve the title.

Politics is toxic and hurtful, driven always by bile and mutual loathing, especially on the right, whose current leader runs on sadism and bigotry and imagined outrage. We practice this politics in front of tiny glowing screens that make us angrier and sadder, literally, physically separate from each other, in run down or shoddy apartments that cost too much, surrounded by things we can’t afford from jobs that don’t pay enough.

That’s not even the worst of it. The racist contempt this administration feels towards people of color has never been more obvious. Because of our government, children have been forcibly separated from their families. Some of them may never see their parents again. The Trump administration’s “solution” to this crisis of their own making is to, instead, incarcerate people. With the new plan, these refugees will be locked away, potentially forever. They’ll be trapped in the purgatory that exists on the U.S.-Mexico border, where laws don’t apply, or at least are not applied correctly. If Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions have their way, they’ll never have any opportunity to get out. There won’t be any way that they can get free.

Yet I love my country, my home. The values we sometimes express, of liberty, community, and justice, are things that I cherish. I love the people and culture of this place, the music and books and food we’ve made together.

How can both things be true? How can I love this country so much, but hate what its leaders are doing?

Frederick Douglass expressed the same feeling on July 5, 1852.  It’s a remarkable piece of writing. The Civil War was still nine years in the future, and slavery—another federally-enforced policy that ripped babies from their mothers and fathers—seemed undefeatable. You should read the whole speech, because it’s one of the most important, most under-recognized parts of the history and identity of this nation.

Douglass and other black abolitionists set the template for modern, self-driven liberation movements, like the civil rights movement, or feminist movement, or the gay liberation movement, and they don’t get enough credit for it. You may recall that Donald Trump very clearly did not know who Frederick Douglass was, or if he was alive or dead.

Anyway, Douglass spoke to a group of white abolitionists that day. They were the well-meaning white liberals of their time. They certainly felt they were on the right side of history, but they weren’t doing all that much about it. They asked Douglass to do a nice talk about America and the 4th of July, the revolution, the Declaration of Independence, I guess. Instead, he tore them a new one:

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 July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?

…Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. …To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July!

…The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a bye-word to a mocking earth.

The denunciation is thorough and blunt, but not absolute. Frederick Douglass always expressed a genuine love of country, and the ideals that Americans cherish but rarely live up to. He was disgusted by the inaction and hypocrisy of well-meaning people. But he understood what was supposed to be, and knew that good people could create it:

Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago.

No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind.

He said, essentially, put up or shut up. He dared the well-meaning people of his day to do something about the horrible evil this country enthusiastically, intentionally pursued. He did something about it. He dedicated his entire life to doing something about it.

So for me, this evening, I won’t be laughing about bald eagles holding guns or whatever ironic, kitschy jokes you might make when you’re sad about America, or embarrassed about what Trump did, or mad at the people who let it happen, or even worse, want it to happen.

I’ll think about what I love about America: baseball, and city council meetings, and hiphop, and public libraries, and people riding the bus together, and rock and roll, and blood drives. I’ll think about great Americans like Frederick Douglass, who fought like hell to make this country a little (a lot, in his case) more like what it should be. And I’ll think about November, when I’ll be knocking on doors, asking people to remember all those things with me, and vote about it.

Happy Independence Day.


Also published on Medium.