What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? by Frederick Douglass

douglass

The preacher preaches and the teacher teaches.

Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold, that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that, the dumb might eloquently speak, and the “lame man leap as an hart.”

English: Portrait of Frederick Douglass as a y...

English: Portrait of Frederick Douglass as a younger man (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. 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. 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? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!

Frederick Douglass portrait

Frederick Douglass portrait (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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 him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. 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.

 
Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

(excerpted from Frederick A. Douglass’ July 5, 188 speech to New York abolitionists )

Source: Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, ed. Philip S. Foner (Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 1999), 188-206.

Great White Father Figure: Lincoln versus “Lincoln”

"Fred Douglass? Don't know the man."

“Fred Douglass? Don’t know the man.”

I have not seen Lincoln.   I got to cop to that from the jump.   I don’t know when I will see it, but I know why I haven’t and that reluctance is based upon my fear that it’s going to be just another well-acted, well-shot, well-directed whitewash.    I’m all for entertainment,  and  I understand  Lincoln isn’t a documentary, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to rewrite history in the name of artistic license.    Even without buying a ticket I have no doubt Lincoln plays it fast and loose with the facts.

I’ve got nothing but love for Steven Spielberg.   Daniel Day-Lewis isn’t one of my favorite actors but I don’t see anyone standing between him and a third Best Actor Oscar. and maybe he deserves it,  However,  even though I haven’t seen Lincoln doesn’t mean I don’t know Lincoln and I know you can’t tell a credible story about President Lincoln and how his position on slavery evolved without including Frederick Douglass.

Lincoln was not some beacon of enlightenment and equality.  He was a man of his time, but not necessarily a man wholly of his own invention.   His hatred of slavery was not balanced by a love of Negroes.   Lincoln was very much a product of his time and his decision to rid the nation of slavery was a stance  he evolved to and  Douglass pushed Lincoln to be bold and brave enough to stand up  against the evils of “the peculiar institution.”

Douglass goes missing in “Lincoln”

The contradiction of Lincoln’s words to his deeds are the proof of how conflicted he was.    I wonder if Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner are aware of some of Lincoln’s more intemperate remarks?

  • I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.
  • My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause.
  • I cannot make it better known than it already is that I strongly favor colonization.

I think we know better.   The reality of who Lincoln was might get in the way of the romanticized whitewashing of Honest Abe.   Lincoln, which was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, had an earlier script by John Logan that focused on the president’s relationship with Douglass, but Spielberg abandoned that story for  Kushner’s that pushes Lincoln and his allies and enemies to the forefront and Douglass out of the picture entirely.

The omission of Douglass and the part he played in leading Lincoln out of the darkness and into enlightenment has not gone unnoticed by historians whom have generally praised the film.    Michael Shank,  adjunct professor at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution writing in The Huffington Post wondered how such a key character could be sidelined,   “It is ironic, in fact, that Lincoln opens with a close-up of black soldiers in conversation with the president. It was Frederick Douglass who not only recruited black soldiers for the Union army, but he also ardently advocated to ensure these very black soldiers had equal pay, were treated equally, especially if captured, and received the same promotions as white soldiers.”

When Abe met Danny

“Frederick Douglass made this film scene feasible. He found it absolutely inexcusable that black soldiers who served in the Army during the Civil War — totaling nearly 200,000 by the end — were being treated as second-class citizens, despite dedicating and ultimately sacrificing their lives for the country. Director Steven Spielberg or screenwriter Tony Kushner could have placed Douglass in that encampment encouraging black soldiers. The idea that the role of Frederick Douglass wasn’t afforded an historical fit in the film, as some have intimated, is utterly fallacious. ”

“What a missed opportunity to educate American audiences about the myriad black leaders that inspired, instigated and were involved in Lincoln’s leadership on the issue of civil rights.

After Lincoln’s death, Douglass said, “Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.”

Douglass’ observation about Lincoln was a statement of fact, not a criticism.    But that isn’t the Spielberg/Kushner/Day-Lewis version Hollywood is celebrating.   This is the American President as the Great White Father who through wit, cunning,  guile and pure force of will drags a reluctant, war-weary country out of the darkness of slavery into the light of freedom.

It’s a good story.   It gets even better when you skip the messy details by excluding Douglass and the part he played in Lincoln’s enlightenment.    It wouldn’t be the first time a White guy reaped the rewards of what a Black guy taught him and it won’t be the last.

America loves its Great White Father Figures who aids the poor darkies.  It makes ’em feel good.