What does July Fourth mean to you?

Like most, my family anticipates celebrating summertime with friends during this July Fourth weekend. For me, the meaning of the holiday is not often reflected upon. My thoughts go straight to good grilling and impressive firework displays. That all changed last week in the Vineyard when my attention was drawn to a flyer posted in the Edgartown Library regarding one of my favorite men, Frederick Douglass.

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Truth be told, I’ve always had a crush on this handsome man whose life and accomplishments were markedly shaped by slavery and it’s abolition. I’ve visited his home in Baltimore, read his autobiography, and even had a chance to pose for a picture with his likeness, as if we were about to take a lovely stroll from the steps of the New York Historical Society’s Museum and Library down Central Park West.


The flyer promised the opportunity for a second date with Fred as he, (rather, someone standing in his place) recited The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro. I hated standing Fred up, but my ferry was to depart on July 1, there was no way I could stay. Instead, I settled for James Earl Jones via Youtube. This weekend, as I grill and watch the fireworks, I’ll ponder what the 4th means to me.


July Fourth Speech by Frederick Douglass, 1852, Rochester, N.Y.

“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.” Read full speech here.

What does the 4th of July mean to you?

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  1. Zenaida Muslin
    Posted July 11, 2014 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    Dear Gina,
    BRAVO for bringing to our attention Frederick Douglas’s speech “WHAT, TO THE SLAVE, IS THE FOURTH OF JULY ?” at this very critical celebratory date in the history of the USA as well as at the present difficult times of this country.

    I happen to have read the whole speech about a month ago for the first time in a little book callled GREAT SPEECHES BY AFRICAN AMERICANS, edited by James Daley and published by Dover Publicaions, Inc. I was struck by Douglas’s outstanding intelligence, exceptional knowledge of the history of this country beyond dates and facts as well as of his commanding oratory skills. It really makes you think about the many other thousands of slaves whose intellect was wasted. July 4th will no longer be just a frivolous celebration in our house. Since one of my children was born on that date (41 years ago!) it was very apropo this 4th of July to also acknowledge those who dedicated their lives for the benefit of others.

    “What does the 4th of July mean to you?” was a wake up call for me. People like myself, who were not born nor educated in the USA often have a superficial knowledge of the history of this country and of speeches like this one. However, I don’t see many of our schools teaching our children about the contribution of people like Douglas. We parents of color and white alike have a great responsibility to continue educating ourselves as we help to educate our children.

    • Posted July 13, 2014 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

      Dear Zenaida,

      Thank you for reading and commenting. I really enjoyed reading your response and agree that our schools would benefit greatly from digging deep into the work and skill-set that defines Frederick. However, we don’t want to omit those schools who have delved into his work and life to support the depth of our kids knowledge and educational experience.

      Has your school focused on Frederick Douglass? Please use this space to tell us more about the desired/resulting outcome.

      Thanks again Zenaida!


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