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.

What’s The Matter With the Republican Outreach Plan? Republicans.

Three commissioners.  One douchebag.  Can you spot him?

“I’m John.” “I’m Randy.” “I”m Racist.”

I get asked sometimes, “Jeff, why do you hate Republicans?”

Frankly,, that question puzzles me.  I have never said I hate Republicans.  Because I don’t.   I don’t like  lot of Republicans, but that dislike grows with the distance between local level and national Republicans.   The further up the political food chain you go the less likable Republicans get.

After last year’s electoral shellacking some of the smarter members of the Grand Old Party came to recognize they had a serious image problem with people of color.   They resolved to do something about that.   They needed to fix the image.  Never mind the awful policies or the awful  personalities articulating the policies.   The rebranding of the Republican Party wasn’t going to be about coming up with a better brand of dog food.   The goal was to convince the dogs that they just weren’t getting the message.

A better question would be, “Why do Republicans hate me and anyone that looks like me.”

The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, whose name sounds like a shampoo ingredient, laid out his master plan to win over Blacks, Latinos and Asians who had gone big for President Obama and the Democrats in 2012.

Hi, my name is Reince Priebus and my job sucks!

While Democrats benefited from well invested and expansive political operations in states across the country in 2012, Priebus acknowledged the Republicans faced a deficit in that area and said the GOP would combat shortfall by launching a $10 million initiative dedicated to outreach in minority communities.

“The Obama campaign lived in these communities for years.  Their relationships were deep.  They were authentic,” Priebus said.  “We’re going to be announcing a $10 million initiative just this year which will include hundreds of people, paid, across the country, from coast to coast, in Hispanic, African American, Asian communities, talking about our party, talking about our brand, talking about what we believe in, going to community events, going to swearing-in ceremonies being a part of the community on an ongoing basis paid for by the Republican National Committee, to make the case for our party and our candidates.”

Yeah, you have fun with that, R.P.   Priebus may be sincere in broadening the GOP base, but not everyone is on board with the initiative.   Some to ridiculous extremes.

Jim Gile, a Republican commissioner in Saline County, Kansas, used an offensive racial slur during an argument with a fellow commissioner, but he wants everyone to know that he isn’t a racist because he’s “built Habitat homes for colored people,” and also that he has a black friend:

In a recording made by County Clerk Don Merriman of the study session, Gile, who is white, can be heard to say the county needed to hire an architect to design the improvements rather than “nigger-rigging it.”

His comment brought laughter from others in the room. Salinan Ray Hruska, who attends most commission meetings and study sessions, asked Gile what he said.

“Afro-Americanized,” Gile replied. . . .

Gile said he grew up around the term, but it is something he shouldn’t have used.

“I am not a prejudiced person,” Gile said Friday. “I have built Habitat homes for colored people.”

Gile said he also has a close friend whom he regards as a sister who is black.

Damn man, could you fuck that up any worse?

It would be a mistake to allow one idiot Republican nobody in Kansas to cock up the entire idea of outreach, which is a good idea.  It shows there are people left in the GOP who actually get it that there’s a problem here.   The thing is the Republicans have spent such a long time dividing the country along racial lines and appealing to fear of “the other” that they can’t just turn on a dime and become the party of openness and diversity.   It’s like squeezing your feet into shoes one size too small.  It’s a bad fit.

When you’re a political party who’s been wiped out in consecutive presidential elections and you’re tired of being called old, White and racist, who you gonna call?   The Super Six G.O.P. Outreach Team!

Rep. Don “Wetback” Young
Jim “the Nigger Rigger” Gile
Dr. Ben “Gay Marriage Will Lead to Pedophilia and Bestiality” Carson
Sean “Ben’s Ass and My Lips” Hannity
Sen. Rand “Hey, I Love the Civil Rights Act” Paul
Sarah “Shuck and Jive” Palin

Todd Kincannon and Jennifer Olsen because superheroes need stupid sidekicks.

and Reince Preiebus as Professor X.

It’s hard to clean up the image of a party that lives and thrives on racial baiting and the politics of polarization

These half-assed efforts at “outreach” might be a sign Republicans just aren’t any goddamned good at this sort of thing.

Fail.

jennifer-olsen

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.

“What to the Prisoner Is the Fourth of July?”

Incarcerated, disenfranchised, and condemned by society.

The 4th of July is one of those holidays I never know what to do with.  Go see some fireworks?  Not a big thrill.  Catch a parade and wave the flag?  That’s not my style.  Attend a cook-out and eat some burgers and brats prepared on the grill?   That’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t make me feel particularly plugged into celebrating the nation’s independence, especially when I know that precious independence quite purposefully excluded the African slaves forcefully brought to America.

For over a year I tried and failed to find a Black-oriented website interested in running a story about The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness by Michelle Alexander.  Maybe it’s more my fault than the editors I submitted my pitch to.   Maybe I assumed wrong that they would be interested in the shocking and sobering facts Alexander’s excellent book  reveals such as “There are more African Americans under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”

Or maybe I just made a lousy pitch to the wrong publications.  It’s possible.   It’s also possible we as a people prefer to forget about the men and women we lock away even as also forget most of them will be coming out someday.   What does a Black man who has been incarcerated, disenfranchised and deprived of any way to better  his circumstances come out to except the high probability he will end up back in prison?    Even if he spends this national holiday as man freed from a cell, is he truly a free man?

Alexander wrote a book that should stir a movement.

In any case, rather than celebrate America’s day of independence, instead take a moment to remember there are nearly 900,000  Black men behind bars (my nephew is one of them), some that deserve to be there, but many more who are casualties of this country’s racist War on Drugs and ask as Frederick Douglass did in this edited version of “What, To the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?”

It works almost the same way if you change “slave” to “prisoner.”

Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? 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. …

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? …

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.

Douglass would not have wasted this day watching fireworks.

It’s Your 4th of July, Not Mine.

There aren’t many memorable speeches about the 4th of July.   Frederick Douglass made one of the few.

It’s way too long for this space, but this passage is the most essential and timeless part.

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 cruelly 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.

Post-racial America ain’t  here yet.   Just because there’s a Black man in the White House doesn’t mean Black people aren’t still catching hell.    One man’s personal triumph isn’t shared by 35 million others.

Freedom isn’t really freedom at all when there are more Black men locked away in prison than graduating from college.   There is no justice when Oscar Grant and Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo are dead and buried and their killers walking around breathing fresh air.    There is no equality when Black unemployment stands at 16 percent (a number that probably errs on the low side).

At some point we become what we have taught to be. Inferior. Ignorant. Childish. Full of hatred both for ourselves and for others that look like us.  We grow to resent how they remind us of how degraded and failed our lives have become. Roll down the streets pass the young brothers hanging out because they have nothing better to do and the young sisters holding babies that will grow up without the love of a father and you sadly realize we have done to ourselves what was once done to us.  We have made ourselves the victims. We no longer need the White Man to oppress us. We can do that to ourselves quite nicely.

Today when you hear the firecrackers going off, are you absolutely sure it is firecrackers?   Could it be gun shots covering up the screams of another young Black life being taken?

It’s hard to wave the flag and celebrate a freedom that doesn’t really apply to you.  Just because there’s no chains around your ankle doesn’t mean you’re still not a slave.  Especially if you think and live like one.

I have no feelings of malice toward anyone that celebrates the 4th of July.   Understand please, that for me it is only the fourth day of the seventh month and there is nothing worth celebrating about it.

I don’t ever want to stop being angry about what’s wrong in the world.   I’ll stop being angry when Independence Day really applies to everyone and not just the ones who can afford to buy freedom and liberty and justice.   Until that day comes, I plan on staying angry five seconds more before I draw my last breath.

You know, it’s not the world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself.

~ James Baldwin

A Fourth of July for the Rest of Us.

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 sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, 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 the United States, at this very hour.

~ Frederick Douglass,  July 5, 1852

I wonder would Mr. Douglass be proud of America today?   

I wonder would he believe a Black man named Barack Obama sits in the White House this July 4 as the Most Powerful Man in the World?

Douglass challenged the nation to live up to its promise and fulfill its destiny to be the bastion of liberty and justice that it so proudly proclaimed.   He would not turn a blind eye to America’s hypocrisy toward the slave.   One wonders what was the reaction of the White Americans to this angry Black man who with such eloquence tore away the veil of racism and exclusion that shrouded the vision of so many of his countrymen.

Here in the United States we are cursed by our short attention spans and remarkable ability to delude ourselves that everybody in the world wants to be just like us.   By “us” I mean like White America.   Certainly not Black America.   To be Black in America is to be a problem to be solved.

Maybe now Douglass might let America off the hook?

Maybe now Douglass might let America off the hook?

I don’t know how far over the hump President Obama gets us.   A damn sight further than we’ve ever been before,  but not quite there yet.  Some of our “friends”  on the Right and on the Left of the political sides of the aisle have prematurely proclaimed with Obama’s victory comes a “post-racial” America. 

Even Obama  knows better than to believe that.   When he was forced to speak out about race following the controversy over Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama himself made it clear that his personal odyssey did not mean all African-Americans were soon to arrive at The Promised Land.

This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy – particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.

But I have asserted a firm conviction – a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people – that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice is we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

This Fourth of July feels just a little bit different than any of the others I’ve experienced in my 53 years of life.   I have no illusions that President Obama can cure all or most of the nation’s ills in four or eight years.   All he can do is the same thing any of us can do; try to leave things a little bit better than the way we found them.

The day will come when a Latino woman on the Supreme Court is no big thing.   Further on down the road children will read history books detailing the furor gay marriage stirred up and shake their heads on how things were “back then.”   Sooner, not later, a woman will raise her right hand and take the Oath of Office of the President of the United States.   

It’s not a bad thing to be an American.   Nowhere else has a country gone from the ignorance and evil of slavery to the possibility of redemption by overcoming its notorious past and elevating the son of a White woman from Kansas and a Black man from Kenya to its highest elected office.

Blacks have always loved America.  They were among the first ones to lay down their lives for its independence.  But that love has been one-sided and not returned from the country.   The Fourth of July wasn’t a day to be fully celebrated because there were still too many wrongs not made right, too many dreams deferred, too many promises made that were not kept.

This is a different Fourth of July than any others preceding it.   I’m a lot prouder of my country than I ever have been in the past.   It’s a sentiment I would wager is shared by many other Black Americans today.  A feeling of belonging.   A sense of finally being fully vested in the American Dream.

This is not because of Barack Obama.   He is merely part of  a result brought about by the labors of  a Frederick Douglass and millions of Black, White, Latino, Asian, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, agnostics and atheists, Northerners and Southerns, gay and straight, men, women and children who gave their body, mind and soul to the forging of a more perfect union.

We’re not there yet.  But we’re closer today than we were when Douglass made his anguished lament in 1852. 

We can only go forward.  There is no going back.

Its okay to wave a flag this July 4.

It's okay to wave a flag this July 4.