Reading Frederick Douglass during the Presidency of Barack Obama
by Pleun Bouricius
Fellow citizens, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today? What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” Thus began Frederick Douglass’s fiery July 5, 1852, speech, The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro, in which the great orator famously took exception to being asked to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
This Fourth of July season, community groups, libraries, towns, organizations, families, and individuals are invited to read the speech communally. Mass Humanities has developed a Web resource with everything you need to organize your own shared reading: the speech, discussion materials, supporting articles, and PR guidelines, which you can download at www.masshumanities.org. This statewide project will kick off on Tuesday, June 2 at noon. You are invited to join us at the State House, where Massachusetts politicians and residents together will read and discuss the speech. Partnering with Mass Humanities in this project are Community Change Inc. (where the idea originated), the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, the Ella Baker House, Boston African American National Historic Site, the New Bedford Historical Society, and others.
With this program, we mark the bicentennial year of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, by taking up the challenge leveled by Barack Obama at Constitution Hall in Philadelphia last year: “I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle. Race is an issue this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. To work for ‘a more perfect union’ we need to start to understand complexities that we’ve never really worked through. [This] requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point.”
“What better way to remind ourselves that we aren’t there yet,” asks David Harris of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, “than with the speech of a man who was as eloquent as our president on the issue of race and a source of inspiration for Lincoln himself?”
Douglass gave his address in 1852, a galvanizing year in the history of slavery and abolition. That March, Boston’s Jewett & Company published Uncle Tom’s Cabin to national acclaim, outrage, and general sensation. The book had been serialized in 1851 and 1852 in the antislavery weekly, the National Era, which had 15,000 subscribers when it started and 19,000 at the conclusion of the novel.1 As historian David Blight puts it, “If Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the fictional masterpiece of American abolitionism … then Douglass’s Fourth of July address is abolition’s rhetorical masterpiece ….
In style and substance, no 19th-century American ever offered a more poignant critique of America’s racial condition than Douglass.” 2
Douglass, in fact, had become so radicalized by the 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Act—which made it illegal for anyone to harbor a person who was technically a slave in states that recognized slavery—that in this speech, he took to referring to the United States as “your” nation and the Founding Fathers as “your” fathers. Douglass himself had escaped from slavery in 1838, and upon publication of his autobiography in 1845, had been urged to leave his new home in New Bedford for England to avoid capture. While he was abroad, supporters ensured his safety from slave catchers by paying off his former master. Upon his return to the United States two years later, Douglass settled in Rochester, N.Y.
In Massachusetts, communities became galvanized against the Fugitive Slave Law on June 2, 1854, when a Boston federal court ordered escaped slave Anthony Burns to be returned to his owner. An estimated 50,000 outraged citizens lined the streets of Boston as an army of soldiers escorted Burns to the waterfront. “Plenty to chew on during Lincoln’s bicentennial year,” opines Paul Marcus of Community Change.
Join us this June 2nd at noon at the State House for the public reading, or organize an event in your own community.
1 Stephen Railton, ed. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture. (www.iath.virginia.edu/utc/uncletom/utchp.html)
2 David W. Blight, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Time, Sunday, June 26, 2005. (www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1077058,00.html)