Reflection on “What to The Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
What to The Slave Is the Fourth of July? is a speech written by Frederick Douglass that expresses his view of Independence Day and what it means for African American slaves. Douglass starts by affirming that he’s an escaped slave which gives the audience a sense of his point of view. He strongly feels that the Fourth of July is nothing but deceitful, hiding the account of slavery and oppression. One may question, why not let go of the past and embrace the present? But Fredrick Douglas wants to live in the present as well as preserve the past.
A little bit of history: Douglass was born into slavery in 1818. His mother was a slave and he was a mix of black and white ancestry. His original name was Fredrick Augustus Washington Bailey. Later he obtained the name “Douglass” from a character of Sir Walter Scott whom he admired immensely. His teenager years were miserable with much suffering as a plantation hand and being separated from his mother who worked in the field about twelve miles away from him. This depicts that Douglass had firsthand experience with slavery and his painful separation from the family.
For the Fourth of July Oration of 1852, Douglass was invited to speak in Rochester, New York. But he refused to give his speech that particular day and asked for the date to be changed to July 5th because he denied attending the commemoration of what he calls “hypocrisy.” He did not wish to be part of a celebration, where his people are reminded of the unfair treatment, in order to rejoice the freedom of America. Douglass cleverly puts forward rhetorical questions to give the audience an outlook on the duplicity of Fourth of July. He states, “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that bought light and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.” He implies that his people do not share any of that happiness or sovereignty.
During this speech, he uses the terms “you” and “me” to distinguish the African Americans from the White Americans. His repetition of the terms creates a barrier between him and the audience. This indicates that he holds a different perspective than the white abolitionists who were mainly his audience at the time; therefore, his clever usage of “you” and “me” was impactful. Douglass is not concerned about cherishing the freedom that African Americans have received after immense struggle. Instead he emphasizes the hypocrisy of the independence given to the former slaves. He believes it has dual meaning, one that brings grief to his people and another that brings sightless joy to the rest of the people. Douglas speaks so strictly to the audience because as a former slave, he also feels the pain of the other African American slaves.
Douglas points out that the power of churches and the name of God was misused to represent that slavery was appropriate. Douglass emphasizes that slavery is not divine in any ways. He asks the audience, “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 cruelty to which he is the constant victim…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” (Douglass 42.) He implies that the leaders or authorities are manipulative because they’re trying to put a veil over oppression by celebrating the Fourth of July. Most likely, they want citizens to not recall the horrible injustice that were still happening to African Americans. And Douglass could see the truth even from the veil.
In short, Douglass believes that the stains of slavery in America cannot be washed away and it will remain as long as the history remains. Therefore, even a day that is dedicated to the freedom of slaves is not enough to wipe the “blood stains” that is adhesive in the country. He makes a valid argument which he supports with references from the bible and from his past experience of being a slave. Fourth of July shouldn’t be the reason to forget the misery of slavery. His speech focuses on eliminating the racist notion that African Americans are lesser than other human beings if considered humans at all. Being an abolitionist himself, Douglass’s speech calls for change and gives hope for a better future. His hope comes from the fact that “the nation is so young, only seventy six years old” which he mentions at the very beginning of his speech.
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