"Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them."
–Frederick Douglass, July 4, 1852
In commemorating July 4, I am reminded by a revolutionary speech given by former slave Frederick Douglass. “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” is a powerful indictment on American culture in the 19th century. The speech was delivered before the Civil War to a mainly white audience in Rochester, New York. Douglass argued that the Fourth of July meant nothing to African-Americans and only served as a reminder of the gross injustice they lived under. The Fourth of July celebration was “a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.” This celebration is a performance, blinding Americans to the true nature of their country. Americans today are more in denial than ever before, we see our country not for what it is, but for what it ought to be.
Americans today are more in denial than ever before, we see our country not for what it is, but for what it ought to be. Douglass, though speaking about the horrific conditions of slavery, speaks about a general American attitude -- denial. I am in no way equating slavery with current injustices. I use Douglass because he depicts a larger national character flaw, he points to an American denial that persists today. We live with an illusion, where belief that we are a just, fair, and an equal country permeates all levels of society.
We live in a country whose wealth totals more than $14 trillion but corporate profits for 2011 were $1.97 trillion. Corporations paid $181 billion in federal taxes (9%) and $40 billion in state taxes (2%), for a total tax burden of 11%. The poorest 20% of American citizens pay 17.4% in federal, state, and local taxes.” Even more disturbing, “For every dollar of NON-HOME wealth owned by white families, people of color have only one cent.” Glaring inequalities now plague our America. While corporate profits are at an all time high, real income has remained stagnant for middle-class families. Million of families are on the precipice of poverty, with 2.6 million added last year alone. For them there is little to commemorate.
Our prisons are filled disproportionately with people of color. We have partaken in a cleansing of our country, locking away a group of people in unprecedented numbers. “Overall, data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics document that one in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime.” Systematically targeting a population, leaving families without fathers and mothers has gone unnoticed to all but those effected. For them there is also little to commemorate.
America is a great country that still has a long way to go before it lives up to the "true meaning of its creed." It is crucial that we understand that our experience of America may be different, despite sharing some common threads. While we are commemorating the 236th anniversary of our independence, remember that for millions of Americans there is little to celebrate. Remember that their experience of America is bitter; their experience is not like yours. America has not lived up to its promise, and its time we change that.