Note: posted on History for the Present, February 21, 2017
Frederick Douglass is one of those rare voices from the past with the power to pierce the distance of time and stab you right in the heart with truth. I like that quality in my historical heroes. For me, Douglass exists on the highest plane of human greatness. He is a quintessential American hero, just like Abraham Lincoln. Douglass’s presence in my historical imagination towers over almost every other human I admire, living or dead. As a historian, as an American, and as a human being, I am in awe of his humanity and unyielding dignity, his fierce sense of justice, his courage, and his support for women’s suffrage in 1848, way, way, way before it was cool.
This is why I popped a forehead vain when I saw the current occupant of our nation’s greatest office indicate with his moronic comments about Black History Month that he has not a clue about who Frederick Douglass was or what Frederick Douglass stands for in American history. I expect my leaders to possess at least basic historical knowledge; I want them to know where our country has been before they even try to figure out where it is going. The current President of the United States has no idea where this country has been, and it is distressing to me he is so willfully ignorant of our nation’s past. So now, perhaps more than ever before, we need history. Historians can help fill the intellectual vacuum that was created with the installation of an anti-intellectual administration in Washington. In the face of lies, damned lies, and “alternative facts,” historical context will be imperative to inform the political, economic, and social debates that are underway now and will continue to occupy our attention for the next four years.
But back to Frederick Douglass and why he was important and why he can continue to inspire us today. Born a slave, Douglass knew the lash of American slavery, so he is a voice from bondage in the South. As a free black person, Douglass understood the limitations of American freedom, so he is a voice from the “free” North. As a fearless abolitionist newspaper editor and a leader of the movement to end racial oppression in America, he is one of the most inspirational figures in American history. He was a patriot in the antebellum era fighting against the tyranny of American slavery, which was a stain on American democracy, just as Patrick Henry was a patriot in the revolutionary era fighting against the tyranny of a king.
In 1852, the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in Rochester, New York, invited Frederick Douglass to deliver an Independence Day speech. Douglass accepted the invitation, but he asked to deliver his remarks on the day after Independence Day, instead. He used the opportunity to lay bare the hypocrisy of American freedom and equality. His 5th of July oration was one of his most stirring speeches. It was a speech that offered a powerful argument for the as yet unrealized possibilities of American ideals and in support of the principles set forth by the nation’s founders in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. But his speech was also a powerful argument for the abolition of slavery and a bold indictment of injustice in America. In the speech, Douglass asked the question “What to the slave is the fourth of July?”And on that summer day in Rochester, New York, he answered that question with a daring and prophetic speech, chastising a complicit American populous and predicting “dark and threatening clouds” over the American “ship of state.”
Douglass was direct and unapologetic: “My subject … is American Slavery. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery the great sin and shame of America! I will not equivocate; I will not excuse; I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.”
Like I said, Frederick Douglass still has the power to pierce our hearts with truth. Throughout our nation’s history, there have been people who have fought injustice no matter the fear or the consequences. People who have asked difficult and unpopular questions of our government and put themselves at risk in so doing. People who have been brave advocates for human rights. People who have been willing agitators for the expansion of American democracy and freedom. Frederick Douglass was one of those people, and that is why he was and continues to be important to the history of the United States.
We need heroes today to fight bigotry and hatred and ignorance in America. To stand up for the rights of our Mexican-American and Muslim-American neighbors. To demand justice for black Americans targeted by police. To support equal rights for LGBT people. To counter the lies of our current president, to support freedom of the press, and to demand proper checks and balances on our government. If Frederick Douglass was with us today, he would do what he believed in his bones was his duty. He would stand up for what is right, speak out against injustice, and lock in a fierce and determined focus for a vigil to last a lifetime. But while he is not here in body, Frederick Douglass is here with us in spirit. His heart and his legacy reside in the work that good people are doing right now to keep America on the path of freedom and equality, tolerance and inclusion.
Black History Month gives us an opportunity to recognize those awe-inspiring historical spirits that made an impact on who we are as a nation. I have always enjoyed Black History Month, because it gives me a happy chance to remember some of my favorite historical figures, like Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and Harriet Tubman. I think it is absolutely okay to take an entire month to celebrate black history and the achievements of black Americas; but I also think it is important to remember that black history is American history. Douglass, Wells, and Tubman are important historical Americans. Their stories are our collective national stories; and those stories can and should inspire all of us in February or any other month of the year.
Learn More About Frederick Douglass:
My Bondage and My Freedom (1855)
Oration Delivered in Corinthian Hall, 5 July 1852
Morgan Freeman reading one of Douglass’ most powerful speeches, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July”
The Frederick Douglas Papers Edition, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis