For the present, it is enough to affirm the equal manhood of the Negro race. Is it not astonishing that, while we are ploughing, planting, and reaping, using all kinds of mechanical tools, erecting houses, constructing bridges, building ships, working in metals of brass, iron, copper, silver and gold; that, while we are reading, writing and ciphering, acting as clerks, merchants and secretaries, having among us lawyers, doctors, ministers, poets, authors, editors, orators and teachers; that, while we are engaged in all manner of enterprises common to other men, digging gold in California, capturing the whale in the Pacific, feeding sheep and cattle on the hill-side, living, moving, acting, thinking, planning, living in families as husbands, wives and children, and, above all, confessing and worshipping the Christian's God, and looking hopefully for life and immortality beyond the grave, we are called upon to prove that we are men!
Frederick Douglass from his 1852 speech "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro"
While neck-deep in a global pandemic and worldwide protests for Black lives, Americans prepare to recognize 244 years since the colonies created their Declaration of Independence. While we, as Frederick Douglass said in his speech “The Meaning of July Fourth to the Negro”, honor the founders of this country, “for the good they did, and the principles they contended for,” we also must confess that many Americans were willfully left out of it’s proclamations. Douglass asked his audience at Rochester’s Corinthian Hall this searing set of questions regarding the purpose of his invitation to speak on that day:
“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? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?”
As the streets of our nation continue to swell with protestors demanding that their lives matter as much as their white counterparts — and that policies in the public and private sector codify this reality — may those of us that believe in the power of the communal sense of belonging consider what The Fourth of July means to our neighbors. What does Independence Day mean to the parolee? What does Independence Day mean to those who are houseless or fearing eviction? What does Independence Day mean to the immigrant day laborer?
Douglass tells his audience that they are privileged to experience and celebrate the freedoms won for them in the signing of our founding document, but that they also have a responsibility to understand that this freedom is not shared by all. In 2020, this truth still stands.
But Douglass remains hopeful, and time has proven that is hope was not in vain:
“While drawing encouragement from “the Declaration of Independence,” the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. — Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are distinctly heard on the other.”
In the places where intellectual and economic isolation has been erased, seedlings of justice and equity have sprouted. And while we are a long way from fulfilling the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, this global uprising for Black lives has brought us all closer than we have ever been before. Maybe soon, as Douglass hoped over 150 years ago, we will all be able to celebrate our liberation as Americans together with integrity.