What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?

Mary Grabar
Posted: Jul 04, 2010 10:40 PM

The slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass answered this question which serves as the title of the speech he gave on July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York. The Fourth of July is

“A day that reveals to [the slave], 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 sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, 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.”

Throughout this speech Douglass appeals to his audience’s belief in the principles of the Bible and the Declaration of Independence, and calls out the hypocrisy of anyone who would also support slavery.

This speech sends my students to their dictionaries and down to the extensive footnotes on Scriptural passages and historical references. It lends itself to a discussion of elegant prose style and employment of just about all the rhetorical strategies described by Aristotle.

I also like to teach Douglass’s autobiography, especially those chapters that describe his intellectual awakening as a child. He learned early on that oppressors are threatened by intellectual freedom. When his mistress started to teach him to read, his master immediately put a stop to it, correctly noting that the ability to read would make him unfit for slavery. Douglass then used his wits to learn how to read, exchanging food with poor white boys for reading lessons; observing ship-carpenters mark pieces of wood with letters, and then practicing writing in his master’s discarded copybook.

And he read, including Richard Sheridan’s “mighty speeches on and in behalf of Catholic emancipation.” These, Douglass writes, “gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance. The moral which I gained from the dialogue was the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder.” Douglass continues that such reading “enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet arguments brought forward to sustain slavery.” Yet, a drawback to such newfound wisdom was being “led to abhor and detest my enslavers” (at least for a while).

Of course, the “arguments” against slavery and discrimination would continue until laws and customs changed. But this could happen only in a society that values argument.

Today, the progressives running education are doing all they can to see to it that students do not engage in such arguments. They promote “alternative literacies” that dispense with complex prose in favor of snippets accompanied by sound and picture. Great literary and historical figures are reduced to cartoon characters—and often literally in graphic books. Instead of argumentative papers teachers assign blogs, journals, Power Point presentations, poster boards, group projects, community service projects, skits, and rap songs. They especially promote such illiteracy to the “underprivileged.” Of course, these educators profess cultural sensitivity. They claim to be engaging students and making learning fun. But the bombardment of sight and sound cuts off the ability to concentrate and weigh evidence and ideas, i.e, to think for one’s self. It’s no wonder that Obama’s propaganda efforts use electronic mediums, pledges, and songs. Such strategies also fit in with the emotional manipulation that goes on in the classroom, where attitude is valued over knowledge. As I’ve described in reports, students are put into little groups where they come under pressure from peers, as well as from the “guide on the side” (i.e., the teacher) who will be assigning them grades on “feelings”—their own and their peers, and those of victims of the United States. Students are taught “conflict resolution” and are told to become “global citizens.” They are emotionally browbeaten to accept all lifestyles and enjoined at every step from “hating.” But even Frederick Douglass the slave was free to hate. And he knew that intellectual freedom was the most fundamental freedom. Today’s students are indoctrinated through illiteracy and incomplete history. They are rarely given the challenging works like Frederick Douglass’s to read in the original. They are rarely given the full picture about our history and our Judeo-Christian heritage, so needed to place Douglass in context, as someone capable of engaging in conversation involving the great ideas of the West. Instead, he is used to illustrate their Marxist notions of “social justice,” and in an oversimplified cartoonish manner. Barack Obama, former professor of “critical race theory” (Marxism with a new spin), has surrounded himself with similar anti-intellectual educators: his partner in the crime of failing schools in Chicago, Bill Ayers; “safe schools czar” Kevin Jennings; and his campaign education advisor Linda Darling-Hammond. Frederick Douglass’s owner Thomas Auld couldn’t have thought of a better way to transform free men into intellectual slaves. To read my report on emotional manipulation through “conflict resolution education,” go here. To read my report on how social studies teachers indoctrinate go here. For my reports on Bill Ayers, go here and here.