Frederick Douglass’ “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro:” An Environmental Perspective

I am blessed with the inalienable rights of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” described in The Declaration of Independence. Thanks to race leaders like Frederick Douglass, I am free to spend my Fourth of July weekend any way I please: sitting in Overton Park in Memphis, typing my thoughts on my computer; going to the hair salon; visiting Graceland, walking down Beale Street, and more. I am black and a I am woman. I am free.  

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass gave his famous “The Meaning of the July Fourth for the Negro Speech” on July 5, 1852 at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York. As a backdrop to his speech, the United States was decades beyond the American Revolution and the signing of the Declaration of Independence during the 18th century. Yet African Americans were still enslaved, most in the American South until 1865 at the end of the Civil War. Most were neither free in the South or independent even in the North with the threat of being captured, forcibly relocated, and enslaved in the South. This was the setting for Douglass’ famous speech that decried enslavement and in racial equality.   

He introduced the speech, saying, “He who could address this audience without a quailing sensation, has stronger nerves than I have. I do not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before any assembly more shrinkingly, nor with greater distrust of my ability, than I do this day. A feeling has crept over me, quite unfavorable to the exercise of my limited powers of speech. The task before me is one which requires much previous thought and study for its proper performance. I know that apologies of this sort are generally considered flat and unmeaning. I trust, however, that mine will not be so considered. Should I seem at ease, my appearance would much misrepresent me. The little experience I have had in addressing public meetings, in country school houses, avails me nothing on the present occasion.” (Douglass)    

Later in the speech, Douglass quoted the bible pointing to nature, imagery, and place: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.” (Douglass)    

Quoting scripture, he referenced two places, Babylon and Jerusalem, two very different places with different meanings. Babylonian conquest meant subjugation of the Hebrews much like enslavement in the American South. Returning to Zion literally represented freedom and home for the Hebrews; in much the same way Jerusalem was freedom for people of African descent where whites subjugated and oppressed African Americans.  

The imagery of harps hanging in the willows reinforced the focus on place. Willows represented a strength in the midst of sorrow in Babylon. The harps or the music from the harps represented beauty even in the lament, something to cling to in the midst of sorrow as the Babylonians forced Israelites to leave Jerusalem. The metaphors ring true for both the Hebrews and African Americans.    

Douglass was hopeful towards the end of his speech: “Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work The downfall of slavery. “’The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope.” (Douglass) Enslavement of the Hebrews and enslavement had to end!    

I believe much work remains as racial inequality, and that includes environmental racism, still exists in the United States. Yet and still, I am grateful for all Frederick Douglass sacrificed for each American, black or white, for the sake of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” more than a century ago.  

Image From http://www.nps.gov/history/museum/exhibits/frdo/visionary.html

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