America: Whose Country Do We Celebrate

Do you ever wonder what the Twitter accounts of historical figures would look like if they were alive today? How many followers would they have? Who would love them or hate them? Would they even be a Twitter user? I don’t mean the fake accounts that exist to post quotes from the past. I mean the real deal actual man or woman real time tweeting today. Given the current events happening in America, I find myself wondering how Frederick Douglass would be received and perceived if he were on Twitter today and what his tweets would consist of. I spend a great deal of time studying Frederick Douglass, and he is by far one of my favorite voices in American history. He made a good deal of noise in the 1800s, and I can only imagine that his Twitter account would be a hot follow today. 

Frederick Douglass is a witty, snarky, and confident voice that I can’t help by love. While he certainly had some fans and followers in his day, he wasn’t exactly the most favored voice for many Americans. Douglass mainly wrote and spoke about race and slavery in America and had a keen knack for calling out every blind spot of American democracy, society, and Christianity. While his slave narratives are the most popular of his writings today, Douglass wrote and gave numerous speeches throughout his lifetime. One of those speeches is worth remembering as we celebrate this country’s independence. 

In 1852, prior to the emancipation of slaves, Frederick Douglass was invited to give a speech at a 4th of July celebration. In classic Douglass fashion, he held nothing back in sharing his honest and heartfelt opinions on being asked to give the speech and on America as a country in general. He titled the speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” and you can read the entire speech here if you have never done so. Much like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many of the voices of the Civil Rights Movement, Douglass’s words in this 1852 speech still resonate today. I often hear black voices comment that while progress has been made in this country, there is still much further to go. On the flip side, I sometimes hear white voices that try to dismiss the remaining racial struggles by simply noting how far we have come in abolishing slavery, as if that solved all of the problems in one fell swoop. The racial struggle in America did not end with emancipation, but some white voices try to pretend that is the case. The content of Douglass’s speech highlights many of the racial issues in his American society, and it sheds light on the situation America is currently facing as many of the underlying issues are still present.

I have to admit that my favorite part of Douglass’s speech is probably not the part I should focus on. He rather bluntly draws attention to the hypocrisy in even asking him to speak at an Independence Day celebration. He asks, “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?”As an escaped slave and black man, Frederick Douglass certainly had zero association with white independence, yet those who invited him to give the speech (white Americans) never made the connection.The majority of white Americans in 1852 were still of the mindset that the black race was not fully human (Douglass mentions this as well in his speech). In no way was Douglass a free man benefitting from America’s independence; that independence was strictly for the white man. Douglass was particularly aware of his lack of freedom because it was his everyday, lived experience. Perhaps those who invited him to speak never considered the implications of asking him to speak at an Independence Day celebration because they respected the great orator that he was. For some reason, they were hindered from recognizing the reality of the situation. 

I have to wonder in what ways this ignorance is at play today. How often, given the current racial struggles in America, are white people and leaders still interacting and conversing with African-Americans without seeing their own ignorance and blind spots. I am confident that I am guilty of this. I’ve been writing about all of the ways that my whiteness still creeps up on me and dominates my life even when I desire the opposite. Douglass saw it, and I believe our black brothers and sisters are seeing it today. This is why we must be willing to humble ourselves and listen to them. It’s not a new thing for white Americans to be incredibly mistaken in their national pride and attitude. Nor is it a new thing for black Americans to be fully aware of the realities that white Americans do not see. Read Douglass’s speech to see for yourself. 

The thing about Douglass is that he loved this country; he just wanted America to be who America claimed to be. His speech honors the founding fathers, and he genuinely respects their intelligence, courage, bravery, and achievement. What he can’t honor is how the legacy of the founding fathers played out. He doesn’t despise the constitution; he simply despises the way that white men have manipulated it to allow the oppression of millions of men and women. Douglass wanted to be American, and even though a camp of white Americans supported him, it wasn’t enough to grant him equality and citizenship. He knew that “the rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by [white] fathers,” was only shared by white people. He exclaimed, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” He would spend the entirety of his life writing, speaking, and fighting for the equality he believed the constitution supported.

“America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery-the great sin and shame of America!”

Frederick Douglass

In 1852, Douglass was outraged and pleading the cause of ending slavery on humanity’s terms, on constitutional terms, and on biblical terms. In 1962, Dr. King was outraged and pleading the cause of equality as issues still lingered on from slavery and America’s ante-bellum attitudes on race. He, too, did so on humanity’s terms, on constitutional terms, and on biblical terms. Today, in 2020, I can’t help but think that both Douglass and Dr. King would still be outraged and pleading the cause of racial injustices that still linger from America’s historical attitudes on race. The racial injustices we see today are still an attack on humanity, and they are still in opposition to the constitution and the Bible. Equality is easily defined yet difficult to accomplish in America. 

Independence Day is a celebration of what many American’s believe to be the beginning of the greatest nation on Earth. What Douglass clearly understood, and what most African-Americans understand, is that the greatness of this country is limited in scope. Douglass believed that he could achieve and experience American greatness if only he would be allowed to. He was right to acknowledge that the 4th of July was not his celebration. Douglass fought mercilessly for the independence of his race and for the inclusion of his race in American citizenship. That independence came, somewhat, roughly ten years after Douglass made this speech. Last week, some people celebrated that anniversary, Juneteenth. Juneteenth is independence day to black Americans, as Douglass clearly acknowledges how the 4th of July is not. Jemar Tisby (I shared his book last week) argues that while some states recognize Juneteenth as a holiday, it should be made a national holiday. Why should only part of the greatest country on Earth get to celebrate independence? You should check out his book if you want to read more about his reasons for recognizing Juneteenth as a national holiday. It’s worth the read.

“But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines, who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity.”

Frederick Douglass

Whether or not you agree with Jemar Tisby reveals much about the way your racial status has influenced your opinions, but I would challenge you to bring those opinions before the Lord. One of the areas I focus most on in my studies of Frederick Douglass is his Christianity and his commentary on Christianity. Many scholars still debate whether or not Douglass actually was a Christian and/or remained a Christian throughout his life. While there is no way for any of us to ever really know the answer to that debate, I do believe that Douglass had clear insight on Christianity and how Christianity was being practiced in America. His speciality, if you have not noticed from reading his speech, is to point out the hypocrisy and blind spots of white American Christians. I believe that he would still be singing the same song in view of the state of the American church if he were alive today.

I cannot stress enough how much we are influenced by our upbringing and surroundings. In no way do I believe that we have to remain stuck in the system of belief that we were raised in, but it certainly affects and shapes our thoughts and experiences. As Christians, we are constantly reminded to “not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of [our minds].” Only then will we “be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2). We have to fight against the comfort and urge to rest in what we have always known to be true. I believe that if we “set [our] minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2), we might begin to see what understanding and compassion looks like. We might begin to realize that arguing from a white stance only without listening to the experiences of others may not be pleasing to the Lord. We might begin to see that compassion looks like surrendering your own comforts and habits because you realize the ways those may innocently grieve the heart of God. We might begin to fully see just how accurate Frederick Douglass was in declaring that the 4th of July was only Independence Day for those deemed white, and that this inherently dishonors the fact that God loves and created all races. Remember, Adam and Eve were created in the image of God, and thus, ALL people have come from Adam and Eve. Equality begins in the very first book of the Bible. Set your minds there. Be transformed by God’s Word. And as you celebrate the 4th of July this year, consider exactly what is being celebrated and what is not being celebrated, and what God might have you do about that.  

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