Ways of Seeing: Reflections on the 4th of July
“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future.” Frederick Douglass said that in a speech he delivered on July 5, 1852, in Rochester, N.Y.
As a historian, I think a lot about the past. I am trained to study it, analyze it, interpret it and, if I am doing it right, I can make my work accessible to my students as well as to the broader public and hope that with some knowledge of history, people will make more informed decisions about the future.
On the Fourth of July, my very good friend Marisela, also a historian, reminded me of Douglass’s poignant speech as we were thinking about why it was that we did not feel like attending any of the day’s festivities. Yes, there were things to celebrate, we concluded. One of those things is both my ability and my privilege to write things that get published so people see them. Another was that, even as a car full of minorities who experience several intersecting forms of oppression, we could all be together, enjoying the day with enough food to eat and the freedom to decide what we wanted to do with our day. But there were also things to stop and reflect upon — things that we should not be celebrating, but that we should be actively resisting.
It has been 167 years since Douglass’s speech, which he delivered at a Fourth of July Celebration. It was one of his most famous and pointed speeches. In it he lamented the inherent contradictions of celebrating independence in a slave nation where the wealth of many had been built on the backs of the enslaved. Emancipation was still more than a decade away. As the U.S. empire expanded westward, white settlers ripped land from Native peoples with increasing violence and speed, questions about the future of the institution of slavery and where it would continue dominated national conversation. Douglass spoke with great respect for the nation and its founders, but he did not hesitate to point out the fraught nature of their actions, “they were peace men; but they preferred revolution to peaceful submission to bondage … they believed in order; but not in the order of tyranny,” he said.
As he went on, he explained what the Fourth of July meant to a slave. He noted that for him it ultimately rubbed an already open wound. To a slave, he said, “your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, and unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery …”
Although slavery as an institution was officially abolished with the ratification of the 13th amendment in 1865, Douglass’s words continue to resonate. Since his speech in 1852, much has changed, but in some ways, our nation’s general way of being remains the same. Our “great” nation continues to embody several of the contractions Douglass named, even if they have taken on different forms.
Total freedom for all does not exist and those in power continue to behave as though freedom is something reserved only for a select few. Women are still discriminated against in various facets of society. People of color face gross dehumanization regularly. We live in a nation that takes brown children from their parents and puts them in cages and then spends time arguing about whether or not that qualifies as a concentration camp. Many in our nation are in favor of building a wall on our southern border.
In these weeks after the Fourth of July, I find myself reflecting on the disappointment that I have in our nation collectively because it seems that we continue to enact policies reflective of the belief that there is not room enough for everyone to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I, for my part, plan to continue my work this year in active resistance to the inhumanity of our nation’s leadership. That, to me, is true patriotism. I hope you will join me.
Mary E. Mendoza is an assistant professor of history at the University of Vermont and the David and Dana Dornsife Fellow for Historical Work in the American West at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. She lives in Weybridge.
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