By Britley Blessitt – Student Journalist
Tears filled my eyes and rolled down my smooth, brown skin as my fists gripped a copy of Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” speech. I am a Black woman. A hundred sixty-nine years later, I can still feel the pain of my people. Slavery existed and Black people still experience oppression. If I was alive then, I could have been separated from my family, beaten, raped, or lynched. I can’t sleep until my family members arrive home safely. Why? Because we’re black. Just like Frederick Douglass, I love America, but America has to do better.
On July 5th, 1852, Douglass delivered his iconic “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” speech at the Corinthian Hall in Rochester, NY. Originally given the name Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, Douglass was born into slavery in 1818. Throughout his childhood, he firsthand saw the cruelty of slavery. He said, “I lived on Philpot Street, Fell’s Point, Baltimore, and have watched from the wharves, the slave ships in the Basin, anchored from the shore, with their cargoes of human flesh, waiting for favorable winds to waft them down the Chesapeake.” He was there, he lived through it, and he saw his people with blood, sweat, and tears in chains.
Therefore, he made sure at the beginning of the speech to express how nervous he was. The abolitionist even knew he was not supposed to be speaking at that podium, but he was. He states that he has “limited powers of speech”; and “the distance between this platform and the slave plantation, from which I escaped, is considerable.” Douglass can credit his early knowledge to his past owners’ wives, who taught him the alphabet and gave him reading material. However, after they feared that he would revolt, the wives stopped teaching him. Douglass had no choice but to self-teach himself, reading and learning everything in sight. Once Douglass became a free man, he continued to fight and advocate for his people. This speech was a prime example.
In this speech, the activist explained the purpose of the 4th of July while establishing his argument. His argument: the 4th of July is ironic. Frederick wanted his audience to understand this holiday is a sham because a country should not celebrate when a portion of the population is in chains. He explained, “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.” In 1852, there were over three million Black people enslaved. Douglass thought the men who led the American Revolution to break away from England to form the United Stated were heroes but hypocrites. He agreed with their bravery and their morals: liberty, independence, and freedom. At the same time, he viewed them as oppressors and hypocrites. The speech stated, “Oppression makes a wise man mad.” These oppressed men created the United States but then did the same thing they hated: oppressing people.
Throughout his speech, Douglass pointed out he’s not a fool. The constitution clearly stated, “all men are equal…”. But this concept became invisible throughout the time of slavery. American slavery is “the great sin and shame of America!”. The south in the 1850s was “scorching irony.” Any crime committed by a black man resulted in death. There were “only two of the same crimes” that would result in a white man’s death. There were fines given to anyone who tried to teach a slave to read or write. Douglass showcased the horrors of slavery with the use of imagery. These quotes support this notion: “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.” The public examination of slaves as if they were animals was also discussed.
Besides anyone who allowed slavery, most American churches allowed slavery as well. Douglass commented, “It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters.” In order words, Christianity was a lie at that time. It is impossible to be a Christian and agree with slavery. During the 1850s, just like those who were for slavery, many “Christians” did not do anything to stop slavery. Christianity was also used to break the slaves’ hope of freedom. The bibles that slaves received had all encouraging or hopeful scriptures removed to prevent slaves from revolting. Those scriptures’ horrific messages were: “This is your life now, so get used to it! You will never escape.” America looked down on other countries but was the worst of them all. This quote, “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 mere tools and body-guards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina.” Frederick even thought then Czarist-Russia was more honest about itself than America.
Despite everything, Douglass was optimistic about the long-term prospects of the United States. America is still young and has time to improve. With the help of William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionists, he hoped “that day will come all feuds to end. And change into a faithful friend Each foe.”
God bless, America!