What is this Fourth of July?

On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass delivered one of the greatest speeches in American history. Titled “What to the Slave is the Fourthof July,” Douglass slammed the hypocrisy of self-congratulatory freedom nostrums in a nation in which more than 4 million were held on bondage. About halfway through, Douglass hammered home his point with a poignant zinger:

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 cruelly 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.

We have, of course, ended the scourge of slavery addressed by Douglass, but have we really addressed its substance? Slavery, as Douglass, W.E.B Du Bois, Dr. King, Malcolm X, and a host of others reminded us, was but the institutional form of racism, and racism an ideology of self-interest we construct to take one class of individuals and deny them an equal place at the American table.

July Fourth often makes me feel a bit melancholy–especially lately. It reminds me of the old Tom Lehrer satirical song “National Brotherhood Week,” a lampoon of the idea that for one week of the year we’re supposed to pretend we like each other. July the Fourth is like that. We gather beneath the Stars and Stripes, pump our fists to a rousing John Philip Sousa march, ohh and ahh over fireworks, and worship the Founding demigods: Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Paine, Madison–all men, by the way, of the Enlightenment who had profound doubts about the whole deity thing.

But never mind that. What unsettles me is the presumption that a few hollow civic rituals serve to mend all the fractures in American society. We can set aside our differences and revel in our common national oneness. Sometimes it feels as if we should figure out a way musically to segue from “The Star Spangled Banner” to “Kumbaya” and give each other a collective national hug.

That would be nice, if July 5 didn’t arrive to set us back upon our path of dividing brother from brother, sister from sister, black from white, wealthy from poor, straight from gay, immigrant from nativist, men from women, the faithful from the free thinkers, and those with power from the powerless. It would be very nice indeed if “USA, USA” meant something more palpable than a chauvinistic chant at an international sports match, or a drooling affirmation of military adventurism abroad.

When I read Douglass’ speech, it saddens me to think upon the timeless words in his speech, especially the references to hollow rituals and hypocrisy. I see the hate-filled faces outside the abortion clinics of Boston, on the border with Mexico, at Tea Party rallies, among the sexist leaders of the military, at Westboro Baptist protests, in suburban malls, and in the halls of Congress. My Kumbaya moment passes and I feel alienated, not a member a United States. I think upon a Scottish acquaintance who once told me that he and I had more in common than I had with most of the Americans he met outside of New England. I, like Douglas, find myself musing upon Scripture: As ye do unto the least of these, so you do unto me. And, frankly, all the freedom talk makes me think about how much of it is just as elusive now as it was 162 years ago. As the songwriter Eric Bogle put it:

            Chains, chains, chains–how many souls have died in freedom’s name?
            To some it is a way of life, to others just a word,
            To some it is a snow-white bird, to others a bloody sword.
            But until the last chain falls,
            Freedom will make slaves of us all.

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