A Snapshot on Patriotism and the 4th of July?
In the Moral Problems philosophy course that I teach I have my students read a speech given on July 4th, 1852 by ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York. The reason behind this is to challenge their ability to think critically. I first make sure that they understand the context of the moment for Douglass. He was an escaped slave who had his freedom purchased for him by Europeans who met him and valued him as a person of worth. Oh, and this was eight years before the Civil War would severely impact America. There are many ways of doing this, but sometimes an effective way is just to put things in front of them and see what their response is. Now, I am aware that the demographic of my students at SUNY Plattsburgh will generate a different response than if I was teaching at historically black Howard University or Hispanic serving New Mexico State University. The reality of my student population in this 50 seat course is largely racially white. Their reaction to the article, and the reactions of other students also asked to read this article in my Examining Diversity through Film course and African American Culture course are not dissimilar.
At the speech Douglass asks what should be an obvious question, but an overwhelming majority of my students admit to never registering a thought anywhere near Douglass’ question. His question and the name of the speech he gave that day is “What to the Slave is the 4th of July? Now, before you read further, ponder that question for a moment! Seriously, indulge me and push away from the computer for a moment and truly reflect on your thoughts about that question.
In the speech Douglass says: “as a people, Americans are remarkably familiar with all facts which make in their own favor. This is esteemed by some as a national trait—perhaps a national weakness.”
Douglass also states: “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future.”
And lastly, and perhaps most importantly relative to the title of this speech, Douglass stated: “I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common….The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in [chains] 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 to-day?”
• What type of response to this article do you think the students had?
• What is your response to the article? What may be some of the current day societal implications of the perpetuation of this historical inconsideration?
• What other aspects of so-called American culture, or the so-called American Way, may be a bit awkward, somewhat inconsiderate, or down right offensive to other groups in the United States, and why?