Through the use of vivid imagery, Frederick Douglass paints a picture of the disparity between the circumstances of whites and African-Americans in his speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
Douglass points out the bitter irony of the enjoyment of Fourth of July revels in pre-Civil War America. The jubilant white celebration of liberty is cruel ridicule to those still in the chains of slavery.
The sunlight that brought life 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 fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.
To Douglass, this holiday is a slap in the face to millions of people whose humanity is not recognized. As a former slave, he recognizes the similarities between slave auctions and the sale of farm animals.
I see clouds of dust raised on the highways of the South; I see the bleeding footsteps; I hear the doleful wail of fettered humanity, on the way to the slave-markets, where the victims are to be sold like horses, sheep, and swine, knocked off to the highest bidder.
Like farm animals they are chained, and their value is only the price they will bring at market. And like many of these animals, their sale will ultimately result in their death.
Douglass expands on this image by likening slave hunters to game hunters.
Where these go, may also go the merciless slave-hunter. Where these are, man is not sacred. He is a bird for the sportsman’s gun ... Your broad republican domain is hunting ground for men ... Your lawmakers have commanded all good citizens to engage in this hellish sport .... The right of the hunter to his prey stands superior to the right of marriage, and to all rights in this republic.
Not only do the owners treat slaves like commodities instead of humans, they mercilessly hunt them down as though hunting humans is a sport.
A final animal image is found in the way Douglass equates the institution of slavery with a venomous snake.
Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster.
The viper of slavery is obviously deadly to the slaves, but this verbal picture makes it clear that it is dangerous to the nation as a whole. The image of a poisonous snake curled up near the heart of the young country, nursing with its lethal jaws, makes it clear that slavery will destroy the nation that nurtures it.