By the Rivers of Babylon

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.  –Frederick Douglass

On July 5, 1852 the great Abolitionist Frederick Douglass made a speech to the Ladies of the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society. In this, one of his most famous addresses (known to history as “What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?”), he gives a scathing attack on the hypocrisy and brutality of a supposedly Christian nation. Even the Abolitionist ladies must have dropped their thimbles when he confronted them with an ex-slave’s perspective on their holiday. Let’s listen in:

This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me by asking me to speak today? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn that it is dangerous to copy the example of nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can today take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people.

‘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 do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.’

…What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

While taking hope in the long term from the soaring words of the Declaration of Independence, Douglass nevertheless saw clearly that America had always been a nation divided against itself: not just politically between North and South, or slave-owner and Abolitionist, but divided in soul between the divine ideals to which it aspired and the cruel tyrannies of property and greed, between what it wanted to see or believe about itself and the stark and ugly truth. And, he states, this national schizophrenia would continue so long as that vaunted liberty and equality were not enjoyed by all its inhabitants.

We can truly thank heaven for the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, paid for with the blood of millions, both slave and free. We can also thank God for the potent words of the Declaration of Independence, whose principles sowed the seeds of destruction for slavery (the very institution its author Jefferson so scandalously defended during his lifetime), and whose words like yeast, continue to work into the national dough.

Yet, Douglass would agree, that process is far from complete. As a nation we remain deeply in denial about our past, and tragically at odds with what Lincoln termed the “primary cause” of America’s success.

That something, is the principle of “Liberty to all”–the principle that clears the path for all–gives hope to all–and, by consequence, enterprize, and industry to all.

Slavery has been eradicated in name but not in practice. It endures in the tomato fields of Florida and the brothels of our biggest cities. It changed its name to Jim Crow, and then to the War on Drugs and more recently Voter Reform, but the result is still the disenfranchisement and impoverishment of people of color.

Slavery also exists among the people overseas who pick our coffee and cocoa and who manufacture our computer parts and bargain clothing.  Like the rest of our economy, we may have outsourced it to countries far away, out of sight and out of mind, but it still exists. It persists wherever human nature values wealth over the bodies and souls of its fellow creatures, and wherever consumers are willing to cultivate ignorance in the maintenance of comfort and prosperity.  “Cheap merchandise means cheap men,” said  William McKinley. As long as these people remain unknown to us, as long as we continue to turn a deaf ear to their cries while enjoying the fruit of their sweat, we remain a nation of slaveholders, blinded by the myth of our own goodness.

Read more of Douglass’ speech.


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