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CEO Reflection: What To the (Descendants of) Slaves is the Fourth of July?

July 7, 2021

I greatly value history and am acutely and constantly made aware of how much history I don’t know. It is important to have a clear-eyed understanding of both the virtues and failures of one’s nation, and be able to place them correctly in the historical and contemporary contexts in order to work with others to fashion solutions that will create a better society. I am grateful to have been born in a prosperous country that has afforded me more freedoms and comforts than found in many other countries. I am also continually aware that the benefits and freedoms have not been – and are not – equally available to everyone, with racism still separating large swaths of people from opportunity.

For this reason, while the country celebrates the blessings that shower America, my tradition has been to balance the celebration by reading to my family a different excerpt each year from a historic speech that shows we fell short of our ideals, and continue to fall short, but can and must do better. Frederick Douglass’s speech delivered in 1852, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” is a literary masterpiece filled with biting irony, sarcasm, biblical allusions, and soaring phrases that make his irrefutable argument that July Fourth was not a day of celebration, but of bitter lament, for those who were enslaved. Unfortunately, so much of it is still distressingly relevant today.

Near the beginning is this excerpt:

“Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? … I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

If that sounds too pessimistic, let me point out some of the sad history of this country. The colonies’ independence from England did not hasten freedom for my enslaved ancestors; it extended the time they were enslaved. England, France, Portugal, Denmark, and Brazil all abolished slavery before the U.S. did – without fighting a war to do it. I heard a pundit say recently, “Of course, we all acknowledge slavery was wrong.” I’m not so sure. Unfortunately, those sad chapters of American history seem to be cherished and celebrated by many today. For instance, Congress has never succeeded in making Lincoln’s birthday a national holiday, but several states celebrate Confederate Heroes Day and Jefferson Davis’s and/or Robert E. Lee’s birth.

Nevertheless, this year I have additional cause for hope — because of Juneteenth. After 156 years, America has finally decided that the ending of slavery is worth celebrating as a national holiday. Juneteenth celebrates freedom, and the celebration of this freedom will hopefully drown out the celebration of racist divisions. The National Health Care for the Homeless Council is working to advance health care and housing as human rights as part of our efforts to end homelessness. We know that we won’t be able to do either if racist systems are allowed to stand and harm everyone — white people and people of color. I feel we’re a little closer to that goal this year. Douglass ended his speech on a hopeful note, and I’ll borrow one verse of the poem he recited by the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison as his conclusion:

“God speed the day when human blood
Shall cease to flow!
In every clime be understood,
The claims of human brotherhood,
And each return for evil, good,
Not blow for blow;
That day will come all feuds to end.
And change into a faithful friend
Each foe.”

Indeed and Amen!

Read Frederick Douglass’s speech in its entirety

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