Discuss the historical significance of Frederick Douglass’ speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro."
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You know, all I could think about when I read your question was a scene from Roots. (Isn't it sad that I can't remember if the same scene is actually in Haley's written account, ... the auditory of this particular scene really stuck with me for some reason.) All of the plantation owners and their families are all whoopin' and hollerin' about the Declaration of Independence and Fiddler (the wonderful man who has befriended the slave Kunta Kinte) says something dripping with sarcasm, "Oh, yeah. I'm so glad all of these white folks be free! That's just what we be needin': free white folks!" Fiddler puts a finger on just the issue. Why should those seen as slaves celebrate the formation of the country enslaving them? Good point! And further, the irony of it all hit me like a ton of bricks.
In a sense, this speech is the first time that we hear a public figure making an argument for black nationalism. Douglass is arguing in this speech that the experiences of black people in the US are so different as to make blacks different from white Americans in a fundamental way. He is saying that the way that blacks have been treated means that they have no cause to celebrate the existence of the United States the way whites do. Taken to its extremes, this argument fits better into a Malcolm X point of view than it does into a Martin Luther King point of view. Douglass's argument implies that blacks and whites have such different experiences that blacks might just as well keep to themselves instead of trying to become an integrated part of America.
I would say that one of the most significant elements to Douglass’ speech is its pivoting from a political problem as one that flies in the face of national legacy. Douglass is one of the first of a long line of voices that argued a specific group’s struggle is inherently contradictory to the principles and ideas of the American democratic system. In Douglass’ case, the issue of slavery and discrimination are antithetical to the promises and possibilities in America. In casting his struggle in the light of the nation’s ideals, Douglass is forcing the listener, and the reader, to recognize that what America has promised and what it has delivered to a group of its citizens are opposing realities. I think that this is significant because it forces reflection and complexity in thought. American zeal and an “exceptionalism” that goes along with it has a tendency to obscure this. Douglass understood this and was radical in his assertion that such a view has to accompany the denial of rights and subjugation of individuals that is a part of this process. In this light, in forcing the person of color to examine their own identity and place in America, Douglass hopes to initiate a type of resistance that will force those who are silenced and those who are silencing to embrace change and accept the fundamental idea that a nation cannot exist “half heard, and half silenced,” to paraphrase Lincoln.
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