Thanks to the news show Democracy NOW! I’ve developed an annual July 4th tradition of listening to James Earl Jones read Frederick Douglass’ brilliant speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
Douglass’ speech was an important early example of white people trying to pat themselves on the back for their magnanimity toward Black people. The speech was delivered in 1852, long before the Civil War, Reconstruction, or the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution that replaced slavery with Jim Crow. It was delivered in Rochester, NY at the behest of the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester. Said ladies, of course, were white.
As crucial as I find Douglass’ speech, he attempts in it to play on his audience’s patriotism to stir them to cat and to understand why he is not honored or gratified as a free Black man to have been asked to speak, but insulted that he was, however inadvertently, being used to ennoble his audience and make them feel superior to those who were fighting to keep slavery as an institution. By tapping into the hypocrisy of a slave-holding country celebrating its “freedom” and “independence” Douglass—understandably given the era and the urgent need to confront slavery—ignored the larger sham perpetrated by the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and, more broadly, by the still-revered “founding fathers.”
Douglass was right not to get into those points, assuming he believed them. Attacking the foundations of the United States would have greatly harmed the abolitionist cause. This is no critique of Douglass, quite the opposite. But it’s not 1852 anymore. It’s 2023 and we need to take a long, hard look at why, 171 years later, many of the inequalities Douglass talked about persist. They may take on different forms, may have been ameliorated to some degree in the intervening years, but they persist, and they are joined by other dynamics spawned by the backlash to what progress has been made.
The legal and constitutional expert Elie Mystal, columnist for The Nation and frequent commentator, summed it up perfectly in his book “Allow Me To Retort: A Black Guy’s Guide to the Constitution.” He wrote, “Our Constitution is not good. It is a document designed to create a society of enduring white male dominance, hastily edited in the margins to allow for what basic political rights white men could be convinced to share. The Constitution is an imperfect work that urgently and consistently needs to be modified and reimagined to make good on its unrealized promises of justice and equality for all.”
Mystal goes on to be much more direct. In an interview with Salon, he said, “…how we go from ‘not good’ to ‘trash,’ is that structurally there are a lot of stupid things in the document. There are a lot of things that you just wouldn’t think we should do if you were starting again from first principles. Like the idea that we don’t elect our own president; that’s pretty dumb.”
Mystal says the truth. The Constitution is trash. What it did accomplish, though, was to fulfill the ambitions of those who wrote both that document and the Declaration of Independence we celebrate this day. It was never about a brave, new, more egalitarian society. It was about a bunch of landed white men who recognized that the greatest threat to their power was the monarchy. It was a successful attempt to address that threat while maintaining their position of racial, gender, ethnic, and class power. Structurally, the point was to make sure that a world transitioning from the divine right of kings would maintain the hierarchies of privilege and power through legal and social methods that depended neither upon royalty nor divinity.
Seen in that context, Mystal’s description of how the law of the land under the Constitution has evolved over the years is telling. Some of the amendments to the Constitution do some good things, but by and large, the structure we live under perpetuates and protects itself, even in relatively progressive times, let alone those that are dominated by reactionary, racist, misogynistic, right wing backlash, as epitomized by the Republican Party and the Supreme Court today.
That’s what the Fourth of July is. And that is only looking at what the United States is domestically. It doesn’t begin to describe a country that has no competition, either historically or contemporarily, in the amount of death, destruction, and sheer inhumanity it has wrought over the course of its history.
What, indeed, to the slave, or their descendants, is the Fourth of July? What is it to those under siege in this country, whether those people are trans or non-binary people, non-heterosexual people, indigenous people, Muslims, immigrants, or simply working people?
True, many people in those groups still celebrate this day, whether out of hope or ignorance. Still, the words of Frederick Douglass, uttered in response to the question of what July 4th is to the slave, apply to all those marginalized people in this country, which constitutes the overwhelming majority of our populace.
“I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a 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 denunciation 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 that would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.”