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.

The Perils of Speaking in Color

The Perils of Speaking in Color for urban faithPerhaps Harry Reid’s words were a bit outdated, but he told the truth. Unfortunately, it’s virtually impossible to speak honestly about race in America today without offending some, or giving others ammunition to take you down.

“Could you talk a little more ‘Black’?” — White theater director at my first professional acting audition

“Why you talkin’ all white?” — Black classmate of mine in junior high school

“Two things everbody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves” — Zora Neal Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God

Senator Harry Reid has come under fire, with calls for his resignation, due to a racial comment he made in private that was recounted in Game Change, the new book about the 2008 presidential campaign that’s dropping all sorts of juicy political bombs.

During the ’08 campaign, Reid was quoted as saying Barack Obama would probably be successful as a candidate because he was “a light-skinned” African American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

Well, geez! Me and countless, and I do mean countless, other African Americans said the same thing! Because we’re racist? No. It’s out of an awareness of the social climate we live in, and what facilitates success in a racialized America (and by “racialized,” I mean race consciousness, not racist).

As a student enrolled in Carnegie Mellon University’s theater program, students were required to take voice and speech classes. Because the program was dedicated to training students who could perform the Classics (i.e., Shakespeare, Chekov, Moliere, the Greeks), we went through arduous training to not only learn other dialects, but also to unlearn any regional dialects we may have brought with us. The idea was that if we were to perform the classics with our “native” dialects, some from Brooklyn, “Nu Yawk,” England, Latin America, Texas, Russia … Well, no one would really accept us as authentically living in the worlds we were trying to portray on the stage. We would lose credibility. As a foundation, we were all taught “Standard American English” (which most Americans do not even speak).

Some African American students resented being “stripped” of their dialect, which they saw as a part of their cultural identity. They took it as an attempt by “The Man” to coerce them into assimilating into “White” culture. Actually, I think they did us a service by preparing us to be more skilled in our chosen field. We understood the distinctives of Black dialect, even if not all of the African Americans spoke in it.

Although I’m disappointed that people equate “Black” dialect with a lack of intelligence, I know that, in many circles, no one who speaks poorly or has a weak grasp of proper English will be viewed as smart and professional, fair or not (and it is unfortunate).

And yet, there is a need to be able to connect to the masses on their terms and in their vernacular, or as the apostle Paul advised, to “be all things to all people, that you may win some.”

The truth is, most people, including Senator Reid, understand that not all African Americans speak in “Black English.” We know that many African Americans speak in “proper” English, and that those who can use both when necessary. Reid simply acknowledged this fact, which only highlights the ridiculousness of pretending we don’t know what he was talking about when he speaks of a “Negro” dialect. Perhaps it wasn’t the most elegant choice of words, but let’s be real: Reid is a 70-year-old White man. There are 70-year-old Blacks who still use the term “Negro.”

The Perils of Speaking in Color for urban faith

U.S. Senator Harry Reid addresses the media.

I, for one, as well as many African Americans I spoke (and joked) with during the last presidential campaign, commented on how Obama would go in and out of his “Black-cent” based on the audience and the message he wanted to send. So, attacking Reid for saying out loud what we were already thinking (come on, admit it) is hypocritical.

African American conservative John McWhorter, a scholar, author, and linguist who’s fluent in at least five different languages (including “Black English”), had this to say about the Harry Reid controversy in The New Republic:

In mentioning that Obama doesn’t speak in “dialect,” Reid acknowledged something many blacks are hot and quick to point out, that not all black people use Black English. Okay, they don’t — and Reid knows. He didn’t seem surprised that Obama cannot sound black when he talks — he was just pointing out that Obama is part of the subset of blacks who can. He knows there is such a subset. Lesson learned.

Indeed Reid implied that black dialect is less prestigious than standard, such that not speaking it made Obama more likely to become President. That is, he implied what we all think too: Black English is, to the typical American ear, warm, honest — and mistaken. If that’s wrong, okay — but since when are most Americans, including black ones, at all shy about dissing Black English? And who among us — including black people — thinks someone with what I call a “black-cent” who occasionally popped up with double negatives and things like aks could be elected President, whether it’s fair or not?

McWhorter adds that Reid shouldn’t be censured for what he said unless we’re ready to censure ourselves as well. Unfortunately, it’s hard to be openly honest about the daily truths of race in America today without either offending some, or giving others fodder for their political battles.