Frederick Douglass, the legendary former slave turned abolitionist, was invited in 1852 to deliver an address on the meaning of July 4 by the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. At the time he made his remarks, chattel slavery was still eight years away from the confrontation of the Civil War. Douglass minced no words in explaining his feelings about a nation that had until only recently consigned him to bondage, a nation that continued to enslave millions of people.
“I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July,” Douglass proclaimed. “Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”
History has a keen way of twisting the knife. Note well: Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who passed away this week after a lifetime spent inflicting war and sorrow on others, enjoyed for a time the ownership of a weekend cottage and spread named Mt. Misery, near the Chesapeake Bay. It was there that Frederick Douglass reached the limits of his tolerance while still enslaved, and beat the living hell out of a white farmer named Edward Covey.
It was at Mt. Misery that Douglass’s owners brutally endeavored to break him for offering his challenge to white power. It was there that he steeled himself against the horrors visited upon him by those who claimed to own him. After winning his fight for freedom, Douglass went on to write himself furiously into the pages of history. Rumsfeld bought the site of Douglass’s misery and triumph for $1.5 million, and sold it in 2019 for $2.4 million.
This is our history. This happened.
“America is false to the past,” charged Douglass in 1852, “false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.” It is difficult to read these words and not think of our current, strange debate over “critical race theory.” One would think the teaching of that which happened would be imperative to our educational priorities, but in these United States, those who control the present fear that knowledge of the past threatens their hold on the future. Thus, the curtain of ignorance is dropped in the name of “patriotism.”
Patriotism. The meat and mead of this national holiday that was so thoroughly scorned by a former slave some 169 years ago. What does it even mean? Will it persist as an excuse to avoid bearing honest witness to the clank of slavery’s chains, the crack of its whip, or the deliberate massacre of those who called this land home before boats from Europe plowed ashore some five centuries ago? Doesn’t this concept of patriotism simply aid us in denying that the rank crimes of the past lay a binding stench upon the present?
If you do not know where you came from, you cannot truly know where you are going, and that means you are lost.
There is a cohort in this country who would have our schoolchildren believe slavery and the genocide of Indigenous peoples were blips instead of foundational institutions, critical to the development of American-style capitalism, and bald statements of policy that have carried forward to this very day. They fear common knowledge of this is “bad for the brand,” to use the modern parlance, an offense against the advertising that would have you believe “The American Dream” is something more substantial than what it truly is: a business deal, bereft of morality and therefore capable of anything.
Let us, in this bold and battered century, relinquish patriotism. Let us not cleave to land or the fiction of borders, to flags or an idealized past that gives lie to the innocent blood that feeds our “tree of liberty” even now. Let us, instead, cleave to one another, to our shared humanity, and to the future we may yet salvage once we realize, recognize and thoroughly shun the forces of oppression that have formed the backbone of the United States lo these many long years.
In the name of Frederick Douglass, and every enslaved person who had their voice beaten from them, and all the dispossessed then and right now, let us tell the truth though the heavens fall.