Nine years before the Civil War, former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass addressed an Independence Day observance in Rochester, N.Y. and delivered a blistering indictment of national idealism that overlooked, ignored and accepted slavery as part and parcel of the American identity and economy.
The speech, titled “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” is being read this month around the Commonwealth and is still capable of stirring emotional responses from audiences, according to Whitney Battle-Baptiste, associate professor of anthropology, who led a community discussion after a June 28 reading of the Douglass oration on the Amherst Town Common.
“There was mixture of shock, a mixture of guilt, a mixture of anger,” said Battle-Baptiste. “One woman was in tears and someone said, 'I can't believe I never heard about this speech before.' … Another woman asked how he got away with it.”
For Battle-Baptiste, who teaches about slavery, the Douglass speech connects with contemporary themes of economic disparity, class issues, justice and the “prison-industrial complex” that ensnares so many African-American men.
“It reminds us or puts into perspective what freedom means,” she said. Douglass, she added, daringly raised the issue of slavery in the context of the ideals of the American Revolution and the breaking of the chains of the British monarchy.
“Abolition was a radical concept,” said Battle-Baptiste. Slavery was a pervasive presence throughout the United States. An internal slave trade was flourishing and was supported through federal legislation such as the Fugitive Slave Act, which had been enacted just two years earlier. Human bondage was so much a part of the national fabric, she said, that “people didn't know how to stop slavery.”
While Douglass confronted his audience with the hypocrisy of celebrating independence while countenancing slavery, Battle-Baptiste said he nevertheless harbored hope for change.
“He actually parted ways with William Lloyd Garrison, who favored burning the Constitution,” she said. “Douglass wanted to use the Constitution to force change.”
According to Battle-Baptiste, there continues to be a need for a national transformation around issues of race and racism. While the election of Barack Obama was hailed by some as an emblem of a post-racial America, she said, the evidence of disparities affecting African-Americans belies the claim.
During the discussion of Douglass' speech, she said, one person noted that in 1865, African-Americans accounted for 0.5 percent of wealth in the U.S. By 1965, the figure had grown to just 1 percent.
“Today, Douglass would say look at the larger issues,” said Battle-Baptiste, who added that his address is a reminder of the costs many African-Americans paid in the struggle for freedom long after independence. “I wish more people knew about [the speech].
Another reading and community discussion is scheduled for Thursday, July 3 at noon on the Springfield City Hall steps. The readings and community events are being promoted by the Massachusetts Humanities Council and sponsored by local organizations.