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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?


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June 19, 1865 is when all of our people were set free, and should become a federal holiday. Many of us have seen news reports here and there mentioning Juneteenth, a celebration in many areas of the United States, but why is this not a national holiday?

Because I had never realized what Juneteenth was, I'll give an oversimplified account of what happened. On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Many states ignored it, and it wasn't until June 19, 1865 that General Granger rode into Galveston, Texas to announce the Civil War had ended and all slaves were to be set free.

Since then, many communities have celebrated Juneteenth and it became a Texas State holiday on January 1, 1980.

It is very curious to me that while I learned about the Emancipation Proclamation in my primary years, no mention was made of Juneteenth. Much of the facts of this post have come from Associated Content and Juneteenth World Wide Celebration.

It's great to see you getting the issues out there, J.W. Keep up the good work!

Of course it is a tremendously powerful and moving speech. There is no imagining the pain of a former slave, "freed," but only to a degree, surrounded by people celebrating the freedom which they deny to others

It's especially poignant considering that by that time England had abolished slavery.

Thanksgiving and Columbus Day come to mind as holidays which are offensive to others.

The PBS series on the first colonists addressed this when the colonists saw their future homes as a shining city and the Native Americans saw it as the beginning of the destruction to come.

Once the context is explained I think it's difficult NOT to agree with Mr. Douglas. Everyting he said was true. I'm guessing some of your students may have objected to Douglas's bemoaning what is supposed to be a national holiday, but upon further reflection, may have grudingly agreed with him.

I believe there is no such thing as freedom for some. There is freedom for all, or, freedom for no one. Even when society favors one group over another, the favored group is slaved to the closed-mindendedness and shallow thinking that must exist for them to maintain their favored status despite the inclinations of their better selves. One cannot reach one's own full potential by forbidding someone else from reaching his.
Douglas is spot on and his words ring as true today as they did then. The only difference is that the "slaves" of today are more slaves of class, not race. The wealthiest of us continue to accumulate more wealth while most of the rest of us tread water. We're told that this is somehow good for the country, but, I've always viewed trickle-down ecconomics as akin to alowing the help to eat the table scraps.
In a more general sense, Douglas is really exposing the hipocrisy that occurs when such lofty goals as "life, liberty and the persuit of happiness" are reserved for any one group, even if that group happens to be the majority. American politics today is full of hypocrisy. Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of our Constitution, but, we're told we're unpatriotic if we criticize the President. The words on the Statue of Liberty bekon immagrants from around the world to seek a better life here, but, our immigration policy is a shambles with waiting lists up to 20 years and many of our leaders would rather build fences and walls than fix the real problem. The framers of the Constitution established the two-party system and the three branches of government so that no one group could hold absolute power, but, that is exactly the stated objective (a permanent Republican Majority) of many leaders in the Republican Party.
Having said all of that, I do not believe, JW that it should be the goal of American culture to be absolutely non-offensive or completely considerate. Indeed, there have been those throughout history that are offended at the very existance of a society with stated values such as ours. A society has a responsibility to try to live up to those stated goals (and American society doesn't always succeed). It is also a citizen's (or potential citizen's) responsiblity to participate fully in society's attempt to live up to those goals. But, if you fundamentally object to, are offended by, or disagree with the GOALS (ie - the declaration of independance, the constitution, etc) it is not society's responsibility to change those most basic tenents of our exisitance or, to allow the offended individual(s) to somehow carve out a bubble that insolates them from offense. Rather, it then becomes the individual's responsibility to find a society (read here, another country, if you must) in which to live that is more in line with his/her own beliefs.
Put more concretely; if a person believes that America is not the best democracy it can be that person should work to make America a better democracy. But, if a person disagrees with the fundamental priciples on which a democracy is founded, that person should find a country/society in which to live that is based on priciples more akin to his own belief systems.

Thank you for this provacative thought. The 4th of July has long been one of my favorite holidays. Why? I guess I don't know. Perhaps more for the topical enjoyment of fireworks, and picnics with family and friends than the actual reason for the celebration. Hmmm - what it means to be an American. I must admit I had never stopped to drill down to the next layer of meaning here. I doubt now I will ever look at this holiday in the same way.

Why stop at slavery? Is this truly Independence Day for all Americans?

Like Karen Buzzell mentioned, this also brings to mind another favorite holiday- Thanksgiving. And I was "set straight" years ago by someone who protests Columbus Day.


What a great discussion to begin. I read the blog a few days ago, and tried to sit on a response for a few days. I tried to let the idea marinate, so that I could really develop an articulate response...and still I find myself unable to really articulate what I truly feel.

I have long believed that the idea of freedom is a farce. To suggest that independence is something that we should celebrate is somewhat ludicrous. Sure, Frederick Douglass was absolutely right in his statement..."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…" This statement rang true then, and is just as powerful today. Whether you're an African American, Woman, Mexican, Gay, Lesbian, Transexual...I could generate a long, full list of groups that are still not included in "this glorious anniversary!"...This holiday, as I see it, has really become a day to enjoy colorful fireworks, set up bbqs, and enjoy a day off from work. That is certainly something most of us can appreciate, but the true spirit of the holiday...the true concept of independence, is far from our reach...and I wonder how many people actually realize that!

To answer your question about how your students responded - I would think (and hope) that there were mixed reactions, for even amongst a large group of racially white people, there are some who are open minded, enlightened and can see things objectively. I wonder, though, how many of them thought about the idea of independence, and its relation/celebration on July 4th, and considered that it wasn't true for all.

Here is an interesting quote that kind of summarizes how I feel:

"In the first place we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the man's becoming in very fact an American, and nothing but an American...There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag, and this excludes the red flag, which symbolizes all wars against liberty and civilization, just as much as it excludes any foreign flag of a nation to which we are hostile...We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language...and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people."

Theodore Roosevelt 1919

I feel this way about many "leaders" in the black community. None of them have ever known slavery or the atrocity that that time in the history of the US really is. I think that many people need to get over it. I also feel the same way about the southerns who hang the confederate flags and say the south will rise again. Some of these individuals need to get out of their own way.

It amazes me how people so freely use the word enlightened when describing others, who feel the same way they do. Are they implying that the only enlightened ones are those who share their opinion or world view, no matter how correct that view seems?
The reality is that there is no normal or right or wrong, and while it is terrific to have absolutes, one should never think that there way of thinking or viewing the world is the best way, because in reality it is simply the best way for them, and what is good for them may not be good for the next person. I consider myself extremely liberal, but at the same time I am not arrogant enough to assume that someone with extremely conservative views is wrong. I just consider them as viewing the world differently from me while holding dear my own views.

Steve -
I think your quesiton on enlightenment was directed at me - so please allow me an opportunity to respond -

When I used the term enlightened, it wasn't to desribe others who share MY view...but to describe, in a broad sense, those who are able to acquire wisdom, or understanding that fosters clarity of perception. The truth, as I see it, is that there are NO absoulutes, and that when people have a clearer understanding, or appreciation for this, they can see things objectively - from an enlightened perspective.

I believe that everyones experiences are valuable, and help to create this wonderful mosaic that we call life. That doesn't take away from the experience of slavery, or the experience of slave ownership - they are two experiences that would not be appreciated without looking at both perspectives.

Just my thoughts and a little clarification on what I meant -

Appreciate the clarification Jason. Totally agree too.

Other people have already said more or less what I'm going to say, but to add one more voice to the crowd...

Douglass does exactly what he should. Had he done anything else, he would likely have felt massive guilt for not taking the best opportunity to show the American people how immensely hypocritical we can be. Yet the question, as has been shown, is not limited to african americans.

Throughout American history groups that came here have been disliked. The group that was here before us, the native americans, were exterminated and sectioned off like cattle that was undesired. At the time that it occured, it may have been one of the worst genocides in history. Sadly, the numbers of Native Americans (and it is also, might I add, horrible that we term them all with one name--they were varied, like European tribes, but we never bother learning the difference between Cherokee and Mohican tribes) is so small, that no intellectual came out of their situation and showed Americans their immorality. Instead, the tribes continue to exist on their reservations, keeping whatever sembelance of their lifestyle they can.

We should all question just how fair this country treats people--all people. The film Gangs of New York shows how much hatred and dislike was thrown towards Irish immigrants--and that despite what textbooks might say (or imply by stating how brutual conditions were for souther slaves, but not mentioning the racism in northern states), northern states didn't treat blacks with respect.

What to the slave is the fourth of July? One more shackle.

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