Frederick Douglass: ‘What Is July 4th to the Negro?’

Frederick Douglass: ‘What Is July 4th to the Negro?’

In the nineteenth century, many American communities and cities celebrated Independence Day with a ceremonial reading of the Declaration of Independence, which was usually followed by an oral address or speech dedicated to the celebration of independence and the heritage of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers. On July 5, 1852, the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York, invited the Black abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass to be the keynote speaker for their Independence Day celebration. The Fourth of July Speech, scheduled for Rochester’s Corinthian Hall, attracted an audience of 600. The meeting opened with a prayer and was followed by a reading of the Declaration of Independence. When Douglass finally came to the platform to deliver his speech, the event took a jarring turn. Douglass told his audience, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” And he asked them, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?”

Within Douglass’ now-legendary address is what historian Philip S. Foner has called “probably the most moving passage in all of Douglass’ speeches.”

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.

On this and every July 4th, Americans might do well to re-read and reflect on Douglass’ famous message. It challenges us to move beyond the biases and blind spots of our own cultural privileges and consider those around us for whom, as Langston Hughes said, “America has never been America.”

Read Douglass’ complete speech here, and watch actor Danny Glover recite an excerpt from the address below.

Reclaiming Patriotism

Reclaiming Patriotism

What is patriotism? Who loves America?

On the 4th of July, millions of patriots will wave the flag and declare that they love USA. But which USA? Sometimes it seems we love a country that never existed, and despise the country we actually have. Do we really mean “God bless America”? Or just God bless myself?

The reality is we do a poor job of loving most of America.  We love the declaration of independence, but continue to live as though much of it is a lie. We do not believe we are all “created equal,” but instead that some of us are just plain lazy, stupid, ill-fit, and unworthy. We value ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ but deny it to the 49 million Americans living below the poverty line.

We rally around the Constitution but ignore its very first sentence, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility.” Have we forgotten this founding mission, even as we make false idols of our founders?

We fight to keep the Pledge of Allegiance intact at our schools, but ignore the words “and justice for all” — we like to pretend that it just says “with liberty.” We behave as though “liberty” and ‘justice’ are opposing forces, forgetting that they have always been, and must remain, inextricable allies. We pride ourselves on our freedom, while maintaining the highest incarceration rate in the world (we hold some 25% of the world’s prisoners in our cells).

We wear t-shirts with the Statue of Liberty, but bare our teeth at the immigrants she was erected to welcome. We love her flame held high, but spit at the plaque at her base: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But given our history, you cannot be a patriot of this country and a bigot toward our immigrants at the same time.

We declare “support our troops!”  But if you “support our troops” that means you must support our young, our poor, our people of color — the populations that are fighting our wars. Yet we claim we support our troops while maintaining the systems of injustice that oppress the soldiers fighting on our behalf.

If you “support our troops,” it means you keep their streets at home just as safe as they have kept the streets abroad. It means you give them access to the homes and jobs that they have kept secure. It means you provide the healthcare that keeps their families healthy. It means if they are legal to fight, they are legal to attend school, and that you admit them into your colleges.

We wage war against those that killed some 3,000 on September 11th, but turn a blind eye to the 245,000 poverty-related deaths that occur every year. Is our reaction different because of the identity of the victims, or that of the aggressors?

You say you are afraid of those that want to destroy our country. But so am I. I love America. So much so that I will not stand for the bigots, the oppressors, and the fear mongers who try to destroy it. We need to understand that our ‘American values’ are meaningless if they apply only to the privileged. We need to make clear everything that is anti-American about hate.

We need to reframe what it means to love America and who gets to be the patriots. It is patriotic to care for our neighbors. It is patriotic to educate our children, feed our hungry, and clothe our naked. We need to reclaim patriotism for all Americans.

This commentary originally appeared at By Their Strange Fruit. It is reposted here by permission.

10 Steps to Finally Leave a Toxic Relationship

10 Steps to Finally Leave a Toxic Relationship

With such a passionate response to my last article, 10 Ways to Recognize a Good Guy,” I felt the need to do a followup that addressed the other side of the coin. Many women may have read the “Good Guy” list and thought, “Well, I guess it’s time I admit my man is no good.” I’d hate to leave that reader hanging, since I believe firmly in presenting solutions and not just pointing out problems.

Toxic relationships inhibit peace, destroy self-confidence, and hinder your ability to make wise choices. In extreme cases, these relationships can include emotional or physical abuse. But, wherever they fall on the spectrum, all toxic relationships lead to unhappiness — and they are difficult to leave. There comes a point, however, where you have to decide that your happiness is more important than the irrational security of a dysfunctional situation. I’m here to tell you how I ditched my own toxic relationship. Before I could move on, I had to accept the fact that despite my positive self-image, I had allowed myself to plunge deep into a place where I did not belong. I’ve been there, so I share this list with the utmost sincerity and sensitivity.

1. Seek God! 

When you are in a toxic relationship, you usually have begun ignoring God altogether. You figure you already know what He thinks about your situation while in reality God is not burdening you or even making you feel guilty. You know all He wants to say to you right now? I LOVE YOU! That’s it. Stop beating yourself up. Get in the Word and see what He really thinks about you. Remind yourself that you are beautifully and wonderfully made! It won’t feel right at first, but if you meditate on that thing, it will grow and develop. I remember what God told me when I was really in deep: “I will restore you to a point even better than you ever once were.” And He did! I would have never believed that in the thick of it, but God WILL hear your cry and He will always give you a  fresh start, if you REALLY want it.

2. Reconnect with People Who Have Known You Longer

It wasn’t until I started spending more time with family, that I realized something had really happened to me and the change wasn’t positive. Being around people that knew me before my corrupt relationship not only put into perspective how much I had changed, but also how awesomely happy I used to be. This was a crucial part of my process because one of the first changes that usually happens in a toxic relationship is you begin to distance yourself from friends and family. Call up an old friend, spend a day shopping with a family member you haven’t spent time with in a while. This will provide healing, although it may be uncomfortable because this is likely to bring conviction.

3. Stop Making Excuses

This may be the hardest one to do. By now you’ve probably been told by a few people that your relationship is having a negative impact on your life, and you’ve probably told a few, if not all, of those people off. So, it’s certainly not going to be easy for you to swallow a few of those statements and digest them. The next time you catch yourself defending your relationship or your man, don’t! Ask yourself, if this person NEVER changes a single thing about himself, the way he treats you, or the way he treats others, will you be able to be at peace? If the answer is no, start accepting that you have to leave.

4. Have a “Me Day”

In a toxic relationship, you feel completely consumed with making things better. You absolutely never consider yourself, and the guy always takes priority. Take a day to do all the things you never do for yourself. Go out with your girlfriends, go to the spa, or spend some time relaxing without him!

5. Get in Shape!

This may seem like an odd suggestion, but you will be surprised how disciplined you can become in other areas of your life when you discipline yourself to workout. Getting in shape will also boost your self-confidence and help relieve stress. This is not superficial at all; you’ve spent enough time taking care of “project relationship,” next goal = project me!

6. Make a List of Pros and Cons

In Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married?, Janet Jackson’s character dropped some good advice when she told her girlfriend to write a list of reasons to stay and reasons to leave. I took that advice! By the time I got done with the list, I had three pages of cons and a pitiful half-page list of pros. Man, was that mind blowing! How on earth did I even want to stay? I learned that the main reason was because I felt leaving was losing rather than gaining “me” back. I put a lot of time and effort into that relationship, I wasn’t about to give up now! Obviously, my perspective was WAY off. Thank God for grace!

7. Tell Him NO! Rinse. Repeat.

At this point, your man is so used to getting his way, he doesn’t even think he has to ask for it! I think Beyoncé said it best in her lyrics, “The first time I said no, it’s like I never said yes.” He throws tantrums when he doesn’t get his way and spends a great deal of his time trying to tell you what to do with every aspect of your life. Decide today to stop letting him act out. You have a good head on your shoulders and you have the Holy Spirit inside of you, desperately trying to get your attention. You’ve changed a lot of your normal activities to cater to his mood swings and you tell him what he needs to hear. Here’s a revelation: Tell him NO! And then do it again, and again. You will see just how little he loves you, and how much he loves himself!

8. Take Inventory of Your “Friend Zone”

I consider myself a pretty confident person, but after a few consecutive failed relationships even I had begun to lose faith that an “ideal” man existed. Looking back, ironically enough I had several examples of good men close to me, and chances are you do too. The funny thing is that those men cared very deeply for me. I called them when things went wrong, and they were always there with a listening ear. (Don’t go jumping into their arms, carelessly thinking you’ve fallen in love because you’re wounded, but do take inventory of all the good men around you — friends and family — to remind yourself that your high standard does exist.)

9. Reject Guilt

Guilt is a dangerously powerful emotion. It’s absolutely imperative that you forgive yourself for falling in love with that fool in the first place. Depending on how toxic your toxic relationship was, this step can take years. Unfortunately, even though you may have taken a huge step towards your future by leaving the relationship, the people around you may not be as supportive and sensitive as you need them to be. It amazed me how vocal people were in support of me leaving him, but how unhelpful they were when I needed to talk. You may be the only one to forgive you for your past, so make sure you do it!

10. NEVER LOOK BACK!

Say this out loud: “We can never be friends!” Keep practicing it until you can say it to him. Don’t fool yourself into believing your situation is different. No, it’s not! Never looking back was the best thing I ever did. Despite all of my regrets and embarrassments over my past, never looking back is one thing I can actually be proud of. Going cold turkey is like an honor badge that anyone that’s ever kicked an addiction can understand. Somehow it restores some of your pride. It’s like all of the sudden, the lights turned on and I could finally see the door! I just walked out; and it was the best feeling I’ve ever had. I knew it was the right thing to do, although I had tried to leave before and had quite a different experience. I was miserable and depressed. You know what made the difference? God! I tried to do it on my own the first time and failed. The second time, it was like the welcome-back party for the prodigal son. It was beautiful.

I say this with love in my heart. This is for all of the women I have known in toxic situations, and for the ones that I know right now who are struggling. That toxic situation is trying its best to take you out, but it’s not too late. God’s power to transform and redeem is so amazing that you’ll hardly recognize your old self once you allow Him to work in you. Forgive yourself and move on; there’s more living for you to do. 

Three Days in 1969

Three Days in 1969 for urban faithForty years ago this week, more than 400,000 concertgoers gathered on the muddy grounds of a 600-acre dairy farm in upstate New York to celebrate what was billed as “three days of peace and music.” The Woodstock Music & Art Fair transformed the way we think about popular music and youth culture. In fact, it became an emblem of the counterculture movement of the 1960s.

The past week has been filled with observances of the music festival’s anniversary, an “acid trip” down memory lane for many baby boomers. And next week the celebration continues with the release of Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, a cinematic tribute to that legendary gathering.

In a turbulent era that found the nation reeling from its involvement in the Vietnam War — a period that was just a year removed from the shocking assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy — Woodstock represented the power of unbridled hope, freedom, and youthful exuberance. Of course, it also represented that great American trinity of “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” — with newly embraced freedom also came the collateral damage of hedonistic living.

Out of all the acts that performed during Woodstock — artists like Janis Joplin, The Who, Santana, and Joan Baez — arguably none has become more identified with the event than Jimi Hendrix, whose two-hour set actually took place on August 18, after the music festival was officially over. Rain and technical snafus had pushed his performance to early that Monday morning. With only an estimated 80,000 people remaining to witness it, Hendrix delivered one of his most stirring performances.

If anyone could make his guitar weep, it was Jimi Hendrix. He made it sing — in ecstasy and sadness. He made sounds that had never been heard before. It’s no wonder that, in 2003, Rolling Stone ranked him as number one on its list of “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.”

Hendrix, who was a lefty, taught himself to play a Fender Stratocaster upside down, so that his right-handed guitar could be played left-handed. He experimented tirelessly with amplified feedback and unorthodox chord structures, while incorporating blues, jazz, funk, and his own electrified brand of psychedelic rock into a sound that has influenced virtually every rock guitarist since (not to mention urban funk and pop artists such as George Clinton and Prince).

Hendrix achieved worldwide fame following his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Two years later, he headlined Woodstock, where he played his enduring version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Through his blistering, sonic barrage, you could actually hear “the bombs bursting in air” and see “the rockets red glare.” And, with it being the era of Vietnam, he even threw in a few notes of “Taps” to keep things interesting.

Sadly, Hendrix died a little over a year later, in 1970, at age 28 from an apparent overdose of sleeping pills and alcohol. He was famously ensnared by the destructive lure of alcohol and drugs, and is counted among a number of tragic and untimely deaths from that late-’60s/early-’70s era. But his impact on music is undeniable.

What’s more, Hendrix’s very presence at Woodstock (along with other artists of color like Baez, Richie Havens, Carlos Santana, and Sly & the Family Stone) put forth a visible declaration of the way that art and pop culture could transcend and overcome even our most entrenched social divisions. Martin Johnson’s retrospective at TheRoot.com offers a great summation of Hendrix’s appearance at Woodstock and the importance of his legacy.

Of the songs he left behind, one of my favorites is “Night Bird Flying” from The Cry of Love (1971). This was the first recording released after his death. The first song on the album is called “Freedom.” It’s a word that can describe different types of liberation. Being set free from vice may not have been the primary meaning, but it’s a desire that he probably felt.

The struggle to be free may be what gives rise to songs like “Night Bird Flying.” It’s an amazing confluence of expression and sound.

She’s just a night bird flyin’ through the night

Fly on

She’s just a night bird making a midnight, midnight flight

Sail on, sail on

For me, in the early ’70s, “Night Bird Flying” became an expression of the spiritual peace that eluded me, despite my efforts to find satisfaction in other things. It gave voice to a feeling of estrangement. I remember being a restless teenager, returning home from a Hawaiian vacation with my family. During the trip, I had a falling out with my younger brother. It grieved me. On the flight back, I sullenly sat apart from the rest of my family members. Few things are as troubling as the feeling that you are at odds with someone, especially a member of your own family.

Alone in my grief, I thought of Hendrix’s song. How I yearned for a better day. Would it ever come?

I remember the telling photograph that was taken on one of the Hawaiian Islands. My whole family was arrayed in Hawaiian shirts while I leaned away from them in my T-shirt that, on the back, displayed images of cannabis and a water pipe. The shirt’s lettering boldly proclaimed: “Smoke It!” In contrast to the scowl on my face, my siblings smiled in a way that showed they still had an innocence that would be lost when they eventually followed me into using drugs.

Though getting high brought me temporary relief, I was a troubled soul. It was no less so as I sat on the plane and felt the loneliness of separation. Listening in my mind to the Hendrix song made me want to soar like some mythical night bird. In the midst of trouble, the psalmist David longed for wings that he might take flight and find relief in some place of refuge. “Oh, that I had wings like a dove!” he wrote. “I would fly away and be at rest; yes, I would wander far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; I would hurry to find a shelter from the raging wind and tempest” (Psalm 55:6-8, ESV).

I wonder if Hendrix felt a longing like this. He may not have known what it was, but it could have been what made his guitar an expression of his desire. The sorrow of not finding the true freedom that he sought seemed to seep into his music.

In a Christianity Today article entitled “Learning to Cry for the Culture,” singer and writer John Fischer observes that evangelical philosopher Francis Schaeffer’s most crucial legacy was tears. He writes, “Schaeffer never meant for Christians to take a combative stance in society without first experiencing empathy for the human predicament that brought us to this place.” Rather, he advocated understanding and empathizing with non-Christians instead of taking issue with them. He believed that “instead of shaking our heads at a depressing, dark, abstract work of art, the true Christian reaction should be to weep over the lost person who created it.” Fischer concludes his article by saying, “The same things that made Francis Schaeffer cry in his day should make us cry in ours.”

In A Sacred Sorrow, Michael Card reminds us that the Bible is full of lament — people of faith, including Jesus, giving voice to the sorrow and anguish that fills their hearts. It’s a means of staying connected to God when the world is not as it should be. It’s the mourning that Jesus commends.

I have a lot to learn about this, but I desire to be more compassionate. Jesus was moved with compassion when He saw the throng of people that had gathered in a remote area to hear Him. They were “like sheep without a shepherd.” In fact, they probably looked a lot like the multitude of hippies gathered at Woodstock. Jesus welcomes them all, and feeds them both physically and spiritually (Mark 6:30-44).

As contemporary followers of Jesus, we also have an opportunity to show compassion to those who are searching, those who are lost.

I feel sad knowing that Hendrix felt conflicted at times as we all do. I don’t imagine that he found the freedom that he yearned for. I wouldn’t pretend to know. But I do know that the longing in his music was so deep that I can hear his discontent over his present circumstances, his reaching out for something more. Thus I lament for Hendrix:

You were among the greatest of your generation.
You achieved heights that few know.

Through your guitar,
you sang and wept,
laughed and mourned,
danced and lamented.

You kissed the sky, but your wings were broken.
You could not reach what you longed for.

As we remember Woodstock this month, I’m also remembering the multitude of young people who gathered at that muddy farm. Many of them, now 40 years older, are probably still yearning for something more. We can celebrate the excitement and history of that phenomenal event that forever changed popular culture. But I also want to say a prayer for those restless souls who are still searching, who are still longing for true peace and love.

A Warning from Africa

A Warning from AfricaOne of the questions people always ask about the ethnic killings in Burundi and Rwanda is how it was that Christians were able to do such terrible things. As you meet people and talk about the conditions that led to ordinary people hacking their neighbors to death with machetes, you learn that a major factor was the role played by political leaders who used underlying group attitudes to their political advantage.

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