For the past several years on or around the Fourth of July, I have made a practice of re-reading portions of Frederick Douglass’ famous July 5, 1852 speech in Rochester, NY entitled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Speaking at the height of a heated national debate on slavery, Douglass highlighted the hypocrisy of a nation celebrating its independence when millions of the nation’s black citizens suffered and labored under the weight of slavery. While highly relevant to the struggles of its own time and place, the speech focuses on the ongoing tension between the values a nation proclaims and, the stark realities that exist revealing those proclamations to be false or at best only true for a select few.
Given the tenor of our current time, I started wondering: What if the time machines of science fiction fame were actually developed, and Frederick Douglass could be transported 165 years into his future from 1852 to 2017, what might he say to Donald Trump. Imagine the scene if you will……
President Donald Trump was just wrapping up his Fourth of July speech to an enthusiastic crowd of faithful supporters. Many, if not most, carried signs and wore red caps and t-shirts with “Make America Great Again” prominently displayed. In unison, the crowd chanted with the president “America First, America First, America First!” Trump began to back away from the podium basking in the crowd’s adulation, and the famous country singer moved forward to wrap up the event with a rousing rendition of “Proud to be an American.”
However, slowly and methodically an unfamiliar figure moved up the steps of the dais. Not only did he stand out because of his dark skin, (for there were not many persons of color in the crowd), but also because of his wild hair in a tall Afro, his strange clothes from a different era, and his strong muscular build. Somehow this man had slipped thru the crowd, gotten past the Secret Service and moved purposely toward the podium. He did not appear armed, and for reasons that no one could later explain, the Secret Service, the country singer and especially President Trump were frozen in place, spellbound by the awe-inspiring presence of this man.
As he stepped to the podium, he began to speak in a deep, resonant voice that had no need of a microphone. “Mr. President, my name is Frederick Douglass. You may have seen my name in your fifth grade history book years ago, or in some high school unit on slavery and the Civil War. I am sure they did not talk about me at the Wharton School where you got your MBA, and I sincerely doubt the folks at Marlago, where I have heard you spend a lot of time, know anything about me. You may want to read about me… Oh that’s right, I am told you don’t like to read. Well maybe there is a video or a Fox News special that might say something about me, although I am sure they don’t pay me much mind either. That is neither here or there, because I am not here to talk about myself, but about you.”
“Back in 1852 I delivered a speech as part this same Independence Day celebration. In that speech I called the nation to account for not living up to its creed that “all men are created equal.” In fact for my people, it would be another century until the nation’s leaders began to seriously grapple with that hypocrisy as it pertains to my people, and from what I can tell, that struggle continues. I must admit the speech was bit long, almost two hours, and perhaps I could have said things a bit more concisely, but that was how things were back then. However today I won’t take two hours of your time, just a few moments.
“I see all these signs, t-shirts and hats with the slogan “Make America Great Again.” It seems that all of you here believe there was a time when things were better than the present; when was that? Was that in the 1980’s when government policies began the process of increasing the wealth of the wealthy by taking from the poor and by incarcerating black people and poor whites in record numbers? Was it the 1950’s and 1960’s when the KKK could operate openly terrorizing people and when women were treated as inferior to men? Was it the 1930’s when millions of workers fought for basic protections like health care and safe working conditions and many others were living hand to mouth? Was it in the early 1900’s when black people, Jews, homosexuals, and even in some places Catholics could be lynched or driven from a town out of fear for their lives? I know it wasn’t during my lifetime. We had a brief reprieve after the Civil War in an era called Reconstruction, but then the hammers of racial discrimination came down with a force as great as during the slave era. I lived seeing many of the gains won in 1865, taken away by the time I died. So, when was this time when America was great that you can go back to again? It seems in our history as a nation, there has always been suffering and people who were on the underside of whatever “progress” was being celebrated. And so it is today.
You say you want “America First,” but do you? For a man who says he loves America, you have a funny way of showing it.
I hear there is a Healthcare bill that will deprive 22 million people of basic healthcare, while cutting the taxes of the wealthy – how can that be good to Americans? I hear you support a tax bill that essentially does the same thing, cutting taxes on the wealthy while cutting services to the most needy. I hear that you are doing away with laws and policies that protect the beautiful forests, hills and mountains of this land in search of something called oil and gas, that only destroy the earth and environment. I hear you are supported and support a group called the National Rifle Association that wants every school to allow teachers to carry guns and only heightens the specter of violence and death.
I hear there are 11-12 million people who you want to kick out of the country, despite their willingness to work hard and contribute this country. Just like the leaders of my day used to demean the dignity of black men and women, I hear you characterize all these immigrants as rapists and criminals, that you break up their families and send them back to uncertain and often extremely dangerous situations from which they fled.
I hear there is a group called Muslims that you particularly despise, so much so that you won’t let them enter the country, even if they are simply seeking to escape the ravages of war. I hear that those Muslims already here live in fear at the hate and terror you have encouraged against them.
And I hear you say you “love women” but in fact are often saying demeaning and disgusting things about them and their body parts. There was much of that same sentiment in my day, and even then, I wanted to stress that women were due the rights, respect and dignity that men took for granted. You would have fit in quite well in 1852.
I hear lots of things, and could go on, but let me get to my point: How can you say you believe in America First, when you treat all these people who are “American” so badly? How can you say America First when those who are impoverished or dark skinned or a different religion or just a woman are so regularly demeaned by you and those that work with you? You even make fun and put down these people here who support you that they are not rich enough or smart enough to be of any use in your administration.
In 1852 I asked this question:
What, to the American slave, is your Fourth 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.
And today in 2017 I ask a similar series of questions
What to the slave is the Fourth of July, for slavery, both literal and economic, still exist in this country. What to the black man or the Latino or the gay or lesbian person or the Muslim is the Fourth of July? What is this day to the poor white man in Appalachia or the Native American in North Dakota or the Syrian refugee longing only for safety and shelter? What to the woman of any race or culture is this day, when you can so blithely demean women for their hair, their body or their willingness to challenge your authority? As I said then, I will say now that this celebration is a sham and a gross injustice, if you and all your supporters are not willing to make this a day of freedom for all, rather than just the privileged few.
Abruptly, the tall muscular figure stopped his oration with the words: “That is enough for now.”
Then he walked off the podium into the stunned crowd, and was gone, just as mysteriously as he had come. There was an awkward pause – the Secret Service, the President, the country singer, the crowd – no one knew quite what to do next. Slowly the singer moved to center stage and began to play his song – “Proud to be an American” – but no one really had any enthusiasm or energy for the song. He finished, walked off and the event was over, and the people departed. In the bars, restaurants, parks and houses where people gathered, they weren’t talking about the President’s’ speech or the singer or all the celebrities who took part. They just quietly wondered about the mysterious figure named Frederick Douglass and the hard questions he asked.
The next day the media reported on the strange interruption to the national celebration. Some more progressive groups took responsibility for sponsoring the mysterious disruption, while those on the Right characterized it as another liberal conspiracy to undermine the President. Some pundits wondered if the strange man had some connection to the Russians or maybe North Korea or perhaps ISIS. The Secret Service did a complete review of what happened to upgrade their security procedures, focusing how such a person could slip through their guard and why they did not immediately remove him. Some inquisitive folks Googled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” and found that in fact there was a speech by that name in 1852, but they had no explanation for its connection to the day’s events.
However, the overarching questions asked by some and feared by more was: Would the strange man’s words make a difference?