Happy Independence Day! I suppose I will be celebrating something like that–the roundabout essence of it, anyhow–next week when I drive my daughter up north a couple states to college. I imagine the scene of having unloaded the last of her belongings from the car into her apartment and saying goodbye: my oldest child off to begin a new phase of her life–independence.
She and I have been preparing for this moment all of our lives.
And while she has suffered no grievances that have necessitated her leaving, no unbearably unfair treatment or restrictions like those American colonists who could not assemble, receive speedy justice or a fair wage living by the tyranny of a distant king, she must leave to seek her independence. There is no other way to grow into the human she will become.
We both know it. And while we understand the leaving will behoove us both, stretch us both into the next phase through the forces of fear, anxiety and excitement of new spaces, we mourn something passing permanently: our time together up til now.
She and I realize that independence begets great freedom and the commensurate responsibility arising from that liberty, on the part of both the liberator and the liberated. My first born will bear the responsibility of tapping into all of the resources she has at her disposal, the inborn and acquired, to leverage her mistakes and maximize her growth, pleasure and education in books and in the streets. My responsibility is letting her, watching with faith that I did my job the best I could, teaching to and modeling for this moment of severing the cord.
For in keeping her tied–whether by finances, guilt or need–is a far greater responsibility, one I am not prepared to take on. Those who would keep another in need or greed will eventually pay a steeper price than of losing that dependent other. And so it is with a nation.
America celebrates its freedom today, marking a day of great deeds by a population led by fearless, brilliant men in an awe-inspiring act of bravery: foregoing personal interest for the greater good in the name of freedom, a principle far more important than life and limb. And not mere oppression moved these future citizens of a new nation to act. It was something more compelling, deeper within the human spirit that spans the heights of ultimate honor and goodness to the very depth of devilry and satanic cruelty. We are a strange duality of a species that way.
I am sure no one was more surprised than Frederick Douglass, an ex slave, to be called upon to speak to the nation’s celebration of freedom and independence in an era when slavery still existed. The irony was not lost on him. He mentions that strange fact in the bewilderment of his having been called upon to speak. But the amazing man is if not merely discreet, magnificent in his tact, bravery and circumspection while rousing the call that the opportunity brought him at that strange moment of addressing his mostly if not entirely white audience, I would guess, at Rochester, New York, in a speech called “History is a Weapon: the meaning of July Fourth for the Negro”, nothing short of masteful in prose and passion.
Douglass first assures his respect and acknowledgment of great men and great deeds, for so uncontested in greatness a cause as lofty as freedom:
Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too-great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.
They loved their country better than their own private interests; and, though this is not the highest form of human excellence, all will concede that it is a rare virtue, and that when it is exhibited it ought to command respect. He who will, intelligently, lay down his life for his country is a man whom it is not in human nature to despise. Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country. In their admiration of liberty, they lost sight of all other interests.
They were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage. They were quiet men; but they did not shrink from agitating against oppression. They showed forbearance; but that they knew its limits. They believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny. With them, nothing was “settIed” that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were “final”; not slavery and oppression. You may well cherish the memory of such men. They were great in their day and generation. Their solid manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these degenerate times.
How circumspect, exact and proportionate were all their movements! How unlike the politicians of an hour! Their statesmanship looked beyond the passing moment, and stretched away in strength into the distant future. They seized upon eternal principles, and set a glorious example in their defence. Mark them! Fully appreciating the hardships to be encountered, firmly believing in the right of their cause, honorably inviting the scrutiny of an on-looking world, reverently appealing to heaven to attest their sincerity, soundly comprehending the solemn responsibility they were about to assume, wisely measuring the terrible odds against them, your fathers, the fathers of this republic, did, most deliberately, under the inspiration of a glorious patriotism, and with a sublime faith in the great principles of justice and freedom, lay deep, the corner-stone of the national super-structure, which has risen and still rises in grandeur around you.
However, the irony of asking an ex-slave living in the time of institutionalized slavery newly confirmed by a legislative decree that commanded the nation to honor the slave owner’s rights to gather up escaped slaves and return them to slavery, to speak about independence on a national celebratory day, cannot but scream not only irony but cruelty, the kind that bedevils the human constitution also.
Behold the practical operation of this internal slave-trade, the American slave-trade, sustained by American politics and American religion. Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market. You know what is a swine-drover? I will show you a man-drover. They inhabit all our Southern States. They perambulate the country, and crowd the highways of the nation, with droves of human stock. You will see one of these human flesh jobbers, armed with pistol, whip, and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-field and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them. Hear his savage yells and his blood-curdling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old man with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn! The drove moves tardily. Heat and sorrow have nearly consumed their strength; suddenly you hear a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream, that seems to have torn its way to the centre of your soul The crack you heard was the sound of the slave-whip; the scream you heard was from the woman you saw with the babe. Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and her chains! that gash on her shoulder tells her to move on. Follow this drove to New Orleans. Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women rudely and brutally exposed to the shock ing gaze of American slave-buyers. See this drove sold and separated forever; and never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude. Tell me, citizens, where, under the sun, you can witness a spectacle more fiendish and shocking. Yet this is but a glance at the American slave-trade, as it exists, at this moment, in the ruling part of the United States.
How could he not but be appalled, amazed and agonized by the hypocrisy of a nation in celebration of freedom? Those who chose him to speak at this great hall before free people, scant few, if any, who were black in that audience, most probably saw him as a symbol of freedom and independence, a man who escaped slavery, self-educated, self-determined, an abolitionist working tirelessly for the freedom of all enslaved men, women and children, having to argue that black men are men. They undoubtedly saw him as a beacon of rugged individualism, ignoring the indignity of such irony in the existence of slavery.
The same spirit of absolute sacrifice and bravery that recalled a nation that risked life for liberty was needed to free the rest of the population, and yet, there was not enough solidarity, sheer numbers to stand behind the black population to do so. It would take white people, privileged and empowered to cede some of that exclusive power and risk security for themselves and that of their families in the name of conscience. That cause was not as compelling nor urgent as the institution of slavery that existed far longer than it should have in this country largely consisting of so called God-loving people. The ultimate divide in the human composition, the extremes of polarities comes to light on this day we celebrate one of the poles.
Americans! your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties) is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria and pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and body-guards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina. You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from oppression in your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot, and kill. You glory in your refinement and your universal education; yet you maintain a system as barbarous and dreadful as ever stained the character of a nation-a system begun in avarice, supported in pride, and perpetuated in cruelty. You shed tears over fallen Hungary, and make the sad story of her wrongs the theme of your poets, statesmen, and orators, till your gallant sons are ready to fly to arms to vindicate her cause against the oppressor; but, in regard to the ten thousand wrongs of the American slave, you would enforce the strictest silence, and would hail him as an enemy of the nation who dares to make those wrongs the subject of public discourse! You are all on fire at the mention of liberty for France or for Ireland; but are as cold as an iceberg at the thought of liberty for the enslaved of America. You discourse eloquently on the dignity of labor; yet, you sustain a system which, in its very essence, casts a stigma upon labor. You can bare your bosom to the storm of British artillery to throw off a three-penny tax on tea; and yet wring the last hard earned farthing from the grasp of the black laborers of your country. You profess to believe “that, of one blood, God made all nations of men to dwell on the face of all the earth,” and hath commanded all men, everywhere, to love one another; yet you notoriously hate (and glory in your hatred) all men whose skins are not colored like your own. You declare before the world, and are understood by the world to declare that you “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; and are endowed by their Creator with certain in alienable rights; and that among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and yet, you hold securely, in a bondage which, according to your own Thomas Jefferson, “is worse than ages of that which your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose,” a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country.
Fellow-citizens, I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, 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. It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your Union. it fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement; the deadly foe of education; it fosters pride; it breeds insolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that supports it; and yet you cling to it as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes. Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of twenty millions crush and destroy it forever!
Lest we forget our history…