“The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” Frederick Douglass

When I was a child, I had very petty reasons for being in the doldrums about the fourth of July. Basically my melancholy had everything to do with the menu my mother planned and the clothes she chose for me to wear. Every 4th, my mother would plan a menu that included barbecue ribs, cole slaw, deviled eggs, and plain potato chips. I don’t like any of those foods. It seemed to never occur to her to grill hot dogs, hamburgers, and chicken; never thought about a fruit salad or vegetables. In addition, she would always buy me some red, white, and blue outfit that I was supposed to keep clean while I picked around the fat to find the meat on the ribs while also playing with cousins and friends.

As an adult, I plan my own menu for what I call “grilling holidays” and they don’t typically include anything my mother has on hers (except when my husband wants ribs). In the South though, grilling is not as big of a deal as it is in Cleveland, Ohio. Here, we can pretty much grill year round. Around “grilling holidays” in Cleveland, all I ever hear about are their plans for the day and of the details of that same menu that I still abhor. Then, I get asked about what we’re grilling and I have to go through the whole Southern thing with them. Maybe Southern natives have a different view of “grilling holidays,” but as a Mid-Western transplant, I can’t get with it.

Adulthood has also changed my philosophical, historical, and political views regarding the fourth of July. Frederick Douglass captures much of the sentiment that resonates with the substance of my thinking:

You can follow this PBS link for the full text of Douglass’s speech.

Thinking about Douglass today is relevant for thinking about the status of freedom as it exists in the United States since 1852. What is freedom to 7-year-old Tiana Parker who was sent home from school because of wearing dreadlocks? What is freedom to the African American women in the military whose natural hairstyles may become grooming infractions? What is freedom to black boys walking home from the store after buying Skittles and Iced Tea? What is freedom to 15-year-old Brenton Butler who went searching for a job in the morning only to be detained for six-months in jail for a crime he could not have committed? What is freedom to the American citizen who can love someone of the opposite sex but if they love someone of the same sex they lose the civil right to marry? For so many in the United States, to paraphrase Baby Suggs in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, “the only [freedom] you can have is the [freedom] you can imagine.”

4 thoughts on ““The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” Frederick Douglass

  1. Nice blog post. I enjoyed reading this. It made me wax nostalgic about your mom’s menu for the 4th of July as a kid. Seeing how at family get togethers your mother’s menu was sort of similar to ours. I “LOVE” ribs. LOL! But you made some strong points about living in this country today with all the trouble that is happening and how it affects black people. The history and the contrast of what it’s like to have liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Many groups of people pursuit of happiness is being obstructed. Racial profiling, high school to prison pipelines are prevalent and to many this celebration of the 4th of July is a mockery. Just like it was to Fredrick Douglass this holiday is a mockery and a sham. I like you have to change my philosophy and learning what i have learned about living in this country “All men and women are not equal. I have to give all these things pause and think about the social injustices done to many people whether it’s racial or someone sexual orientation or religious freedom. For many the pursuit of happiness is being obstructed. It’s not about cookouts and summertime fun for everyone. I thank you for the You Tube of the magnificent James Earl Jones with this deep and resonating voice reading the Fredrick Douglass Fourth of July speech. This blog is nice. I will visit often. Thanks for creating this space.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to offer your reflections. There is a great deal of emphasis in the United States on celebrations and parties. I was thinking recently about how little time and space we set aside for reflection. When I was a child, I was often told to “go somewhere and think about (fill in the blank).” To me, this was not a rebuke because I was witness to people who did spend time reflecting. As far as I was concerned this model provided me with a more meaningful learning and thinking posture than formal schooling ever did.
      I’m so happy to know that you appreciated the Douglass piece. I love this idea of accepting an invitation while at the same time reflecting on why you were chosen. It’s a wonderful model of careful introspection. Douglass didn’t receive the invitation as an honor but a query. For me, that set the context for thinking about what the 4th of July means for so many marginalized and discounted people in the U.S. today. In thinking about this context, it doesn’t make me want to party. EMM

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