In preparation for Independence Day, some of us ritualistically reread Frederick Douglass’s greatest speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” That speech, which Douglass delivered in Rochester on July 5, 1852, calls on Americans to live up to the nation’s egalitarian ideals. Douglass gave the speech on the fifth because he refused to celebrate the Fourth of July while slavery remained the law of the land.
The speech continues to inspire today, with its soaring rhetoric and commitment to human equality. But could it be taught in states with Republican-controlled legislatures intent on banning from the classroom an honest engagement with the nation’s history of slavery and racism?
At the time that Douglass gave the speech, there were over 3 million enslaved people in the United States, and the numbers were growing because of the internal slave trade. Douglass’ anger energized his speech, building to this famous proclamation:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty 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 … 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.
Douglass goes on to assert that, “for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”
This is the passage that upset the parents of Texas high school students. They did not want their children taught such “un-American” sentiments. But Douglass was writing in an American grain, using the document at the center of July Fourth celebrations — the Declaration of Independence — to question such celebrations during a time of slavery. Moreover, he told his audience that the American revolutionaries themselves helped to inspire the speech. “They were peace men,” Douglass says about the Founders, “but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage.”
Teachers in Texas who told me they were nervous about teaching key Douglass works will no doubt be even more nervous after the Sept. 1st adoption of the legislation intended to keep darker aspects of U.S. history under wraps. Will teachers in Texas, Idaho, Tennessee and other states adopting such laws be willing to put their jobs on the line by assigning works like Douglass’ Fourth of July speech? We could even ask whether teachers would be willing to risk their jobs by teaching African American literature. After all, a key theme among African American writers, from David Walker to Toni Morrison, is precisely what Douglass addresses in much of his writing: the history of slavery and racism in the United States as viewed from the perspective of Black people.
In the spirit of Frederick Douglass, we need to use this year’s July Fourth as a reminder of the American tradition of critique. As Douglass put things hopefully at the end of his speech, we need to draw “encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains,” to continue to work of achieving the promise of America.
Robert S. Levine (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Distinguished University Professor of English at the University of Maryland. His latest book, “The Failed Promise: Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass, and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson,” will be published in August (W.W. Norton).