Every year, on America’s birthday, I read Frederick Douglass’s essay “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
I was first introduced to Frederick Douglass while in elementary school. My sixth grade teacher, a stern but kind black woman, knew that I, the only black boy in her class, would benefit greatly from his wisdom and example. She was right.
The book “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” was wondrous.
It was the amazing adventure of a man who fights to free his people by first liberating his mind and then his body from the evils of white-on-black slavery.
Douglass tricks gullible white children to teach him how to read.
Douglass beats the hell out of his evil overseer, Edward Covey.
Douglass escapes to freedom, avoiding slave patrollers and other evildoers.
Douglass goes on to fight for the freedom of black Americans — and along the way becomes one of America’s greatest orators, activists and thinkers.
What was there for a black child (and later on an adult) not to love?
In high school I would then discover his landmark speech and essay “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
At first I admired Douglass’ masterful oratory and command of the English language.
There is searing truth:
I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.
Then Douglass lays in the body blows:
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.
Eventually I began to read “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” as political performance art and drama. As I learned and studied more, the naive optimism of Douglass’s belief that white supremacy and racism would wither away as incompatible with a post-slavery America became more obvious and problematic. This too was a gift from Douglass: his hope reveals much about the contours and tensions within the black freedom struggle. Black folks are a hopeful people who all too often love a country which does not love us back. This is a special power. It is also a horrible curse.
But for all of the multiple valences of meaning in “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” there is one unifying theme. Douglass and his life are testimonies to the force of black Americans’ love of freedom, and an unrelenting stubbornness to do all that is necessary to be fully equal and free citizens.
In the age of Donald Trump, when white supremacy is openly resurgent, and an unapologetic racist authoritarian is president, Douglass’s “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” resonates even more.
History has a dark sense of humor. There is something surreal about reading Frederick Douglass when the Republicans, once the party of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, is now fully owned by the ideological descendants of Confederate traitors like Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Trumpism and the contemporary Republican Party’s melding of racism and conservatism are a symptom of an old problem in American life and society. The country has a white democracy problem.
This problem began with how the United States was born with two great birth defects — the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement, rape, murder and abuse of black enslaved people. This sickness continued to grow, change and adapt through to the Civil War to end (legal) slavery and then on to Jim Crow’s American version of Apartheid, and more recently to the lie of a “colorblind” or “post-racial” America.
That lie birthed two twins. One was Barack Obama, the country’s first black president — a man who historians will likely regard as one of the best presidents in American history. The other, a product of white rage, is President Donald Trump. One president worked to save American democracy. The other is an authoritarian who yearns to destroy it.
Obama and Trump are like reflections of one another in a twisted mirror. The late science fiction writer Harlan Ellison — who died last week — likely looks on with a mix of bemusement and disgust.
In an America caught in a permanent constitutional crisis caused by Donald Trump and his Republican enablers there is a temptation — especially among the mainstream media — to speak in vague and lazy language about an undefined “we,” “America,” the “American people” and, of course, the “working class.”
This is done out of a fear of telling the truth: The rise of Donald Trump’s and his movement is not the fault of all people equally. It is a curse that has been called down by groups and individuals who can and must be named.
Black and brown Americans were and continue to be the most vocal critics of Donald Trump and the racist movement he and the Republican Party embody.
A recent Quinnipiac University national poll shows that despite his illegitimate presidency and continued assault on the country’s democracy, white men continue to support Donald Trump. Trump is also one of the most popular Republican presidents (among Republican voters) in the history of modern polling.
It was not the “working class” who elected Donald Trump. It was white voters across all incomes. These voters were largely motivated by racism, social-dominance behavior and anger toward Barack Obama.
Social scientists have conducted research showing that those white Americans who feel racial resentment are much more likely to support Donald Trump. Most importantly, white voters with racist views are also more likely to support authoritarianism, the possibility of postponing elections and otherwise undermining American democracy if it means that white people can maintain group power.
But in trying to understand the full scale of the country’s white democracy problem we must also grapple with the ways that racism and white supremacy are features rather than bugs in the American democratic project.
Legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw warns us that “a society once expressly organized around white supremacist principles does not cease to be a white supremacist society simply by formally rejecting those principles. The society remains white supremacist in its maintenance of the actual distribution of goods and services, statuses, and prestige.”
Philosopher Charles Mills also explains in his book “Blackness Visible” how basic assumptions driving the European Enlightenment project and its understanding of “human rights” were, quite literally, colored by race:
My claim is essentially that for most of Enlightenment First World political theory, what seems like a neutral starting point, which begs no questions, is actually already normatively loaded, in that the population of persons has been overtly or covertly defined so as to be coextensive with the white male population. They are the respectable occupants of the building. So in the period of de jure global white supremacy (European colonial rule, African slavery), the scope of European normative theories usually extended just to Europeans at home and abroad. That is, theories about the rights, liberties, and privileges of “all men” were really intended to apply only to all white men, nonwhites being in a moral basement covered by a different set of rules.
In his award winning book “American Slavery, American Freedom,” historian Edmund Morgan describes America’s intertwining of white supremacy, freedom and democracy: “The rise of liberty and equality in America had been accompanied by the rise of slavery. … American reliance on slave labor must be viewed in the context of the American struggle for a separate and equal station among the nations of the Earth.”
Morgan summarizes: “To a large degree it may be said that Americans bought their independence with slave labor.”
For centuries black and brown Americans have been trying to fix white America’s democracy problem. There have been many successes, from the War of Independence to the Civil War and Reconstruction and to the civil rights victories of the 1960s. In total, the black freedom struggle has expanded civil rights for all people in the United States. But in the age of Trump it is abundantly clear that white Americans have created one of the greatest threats to American freedom and democracy since the founding of the country. Trump’s racial regime is a dam meant to stem the tide of progress that black and brown Americans (with the help of some whites) have fought for centuries to advance.
Perhaps it is time for white Americans to solve their self-inflicted crisis of American democracy without the help of black and brown people. We have already done enough. But even in this frustration there is another lesson to be learned from Frederick Douglass. He understood that black Americans are a people with a fierce loyalty to the best of what America can be. As we have always done, we will take on a special burden and struggle to save America from itself.
Part of this is necessary self-interest and self-defense. But much of it is selfless: Black and brown folks are a loyal and patriotic people. We have grabbed onto that great tocsin of American freedom and will not surrender it — even if too many millions of white Americans have discarded it for cheaply made “MAGA” hats.