homeaboutarchives + tagsnewslettermembership!
aboutarchivesnewslettermembership!
aboutarchivesmembers!

kottke.org posts about Frederick Douglass

“What, to My People, is the Fourth of July?”

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 03, 2020

In a powerful video for the Movement For Black Lives, Daveed Diggs asks: “What, to My People, is the Fourth of July?”

What, to my people, is the Fourth of July? My people, who are failed every day by every country, sleepless in the long night, terrorized by fireworks, we who have cried salt baths for our kin.

Look at all we have borne for you: arms, armistice, the sweetest fruits, flesh of children hidden away from the ugly summer of their own blood — we are on the front lines. Help me, tell me, what do we tell the children of your Fourth of July? What is death to a daughter? What is river to a sea? Where is the country where my people are safe?

Ancestors set the table send dream mares in high supply. Too heavy, too spent, too hot to cook, no promise beyond the sparkly simple bombs. Keep your holiday, your hunger, the blood in your teeth. Police parade down streets, proud descendants of the slave patrol. Theater of denial, a propaganda pageant, and we are on the front lines all summer. My uncle can’t sleep and he was born free. And he ain’t never been.

The text performed by Diggs — written by Safia Elhillo, Danez Smith, Lauren Whitehead, W. Kamau Bell, Angel Nafis, Idris Goodwin, Pharoahe Monch, Camonghne Felix, and Nate Marshall — was inspired by Frederick Douglass’ July 5, 1852 speech, in which he asked, “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?”

Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

163 Years of The Atlantic’s Writing on Race and Racism in America

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 16, 2020

The Atlantic was founded in 1857 and in its early days was an outlet for prominent voices speaking out against slavery. Editor Gillian White has compiled a list of the magazine’s writing on race and racism in America from deep in the archive to the present day. It includes writing from Julia Ward Howe, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., and Stokely Carmichael along with pieces from modern voices like Bree Newsome, Eve Ewing, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi, and Nikole Hannah-Jones. In introducing the collection, White writes:

Understanding the present moment requires grappling with a history stained by racial inequity, violence, and the constant fight for forward progress. In a century and a half of writing stories about race in America, The Atlantic has published works that have improved the broad understanding of injustice in America, and also works that furthered ideas and theories that ultimately were proved wrong or harmful. To comprehend the current state of the country, we must consider the aftereffects of both categories. We must also take into account the fact that these stories, in aggregate, are overwhelmingly written by men.

And here are a few pieces I picked out for my own personal reading list:

Reconstruction by Frederick Douglass, December 1866. “No republic is safe that tolerates a privileged class, or denies to any of its citizens equal rights and equal means to maintain them.”

The Awakening of the Negro by Booker T. Washington, September 1896. “I wish my readers could have the chance that I have had of going into this community. I wish they could look into the faces of the people and see them beaming with hope and delight.”

The Negro Is Your Brother (Letter From Birmingham Jail) by Martin Luther King Jr., August 1963. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

The Prison-Industrial Complex by Eric Schlosser, December 1998. “The United States now imprisons more people than any other country in the world — perhaps half a million more than Communist China. The American inmate population has grown so large that it is difficult to comprehend: imagine the combined populations of Atlanta, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Des Moines, and Miami behind bars.”

The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates, June 2014. “And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations — by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences — is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely.”

What, to the American Slave, Is Your 4th of July?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 05, 2016

In 1852, Frederick Douglass gave a speech in Rochester, NY which historian James West Davidson calls “the most remarkable Independence Day oration in American history”.

In Rochester, Douglass stalked his largely white audience with exquisite care, taking them by stealth. He began by providing what many listeners might not have expected from a notorious abolitionist: a fulsome paean to the Fourth and the founding generation. The day brought forth “demonstrations of joyous enthusiasm,” he told them, for the signers of the Declaration were “brave men. They were great men too-great enough to give fame to a great age.” Jefferson’s very words echoed in Douglass’s salute: “Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country … “

Your fathers. That pronoun signaled the slightest shift in the breeze. But Douglass continued cordially. “Friends and citizens, I need not enter further into the causes which led to this anniversary. Many of you understand them better than I do.” Then another step back: “That is a branch of knowledge in which you feel, perhaps, a much deeper interest than your speaker.”

The text of the speech itself is well worth reading…that “slightest shift in the breeze” slowly builds to a mighty hurricane.

Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Several years ago, James Earl Jones read a portion of Douglass’ speech:

Update: Baratunde Thurston recently presented Douglass’ speech live at the Brooklyn Public Library. (thx, rick)