The nation has just completed commemorating its most hallowed holiday, July fourth/Independence Day. Whenever this holiday comes around, I am always reminded of Frederick Douglass’ famous oration in Rochester, New York in 1852 in which he asked “What to the American slave is your Fourth of July?” Douglass incisively and eloquently catalogued the injustices against people of African descent. One suspects that his goal was not only to condemn the hypocrisy of a wayward nation but to caution Blacks not to get caught up in the pomp and circumstance of America’s holidays when the struggle for freedom was far from complete. It is for that reason that the Institute of the Black World 21st Century generally sponsors a Forum during the Independence Day celebration entitled “Black Patriotism Is Resistance.”
The status of Africans in America has dramatically changed since Douglass’ brilliant and heartfelt denunciation of America in 1852, not the least of which is the election of the first Black President. However, there are important reasons why Black people should forever preserve the spirit of vigilance and resistance Douglass exemplified as an integral part of our character as a people. First we must always remember/recall the blood, toil and tears, the struggle that enabled us to survive, resist enslavement and break down the walls of apartheid despite incredible odds. We have struggled to build a new African community out of the disparate ethnic groups, e.g., Ibo, Fulani, Housa, Yoruba, who were captured and transported to these hostile shores.
In the face of slavery, discrimination and segregation, visionary quasi-free African leaders like Richard Allen, Absolom Jones, Prince Hall, Samuel Cornish and John B. Russwurm created independent Black institutions like the Black Church, African Free Schools, Mutual Aid Societies, Black newspapers and fraternal organizations to enhance the capacity of the emerging African community to survive. In addition, David Walker, Henry Highland Garnet, Martin R. Delaney and Frederick Douglass relentlessly argued against and mobilized to liberate their sisters and brothers from enslavement. Blacks held Political Conventions to discuss strategy, tactics and an agenda for the Black Freedom movement, created their own abolitionist organizations and utilized the embryonic Black press to educate, agitate and organize. As Vincent Harding documents in his extraordinary book There Is a River, a stream of community-development, protest and resistance flows unbroken through the history of Africans in America. This legacy must always be part of our collective consciousness/memory if we are to finish the course.
Finish the course we must. This is the second reason why it is important to keep the fire of Douglass burning in our bosoms; we are not yet free. Internally we have been working to build a new African community, but that task is incomplete. Leaders from Garvey, DuBois, Honorable Elijah Muhammad, to Malcolm and Martin have challenged us to harness our human and material resources for self-development. DuBois articulated the need for an internal, Black economy and Malcolm urged us to “control the politics, economics and social life” of our community. There is a Black man who controls the White House but it can hardly be said that African Americans have sufficient control of the Black community, or that we have gained equity/parity with our White counterparts in terms of income and wealth. We must continue to invoke the memories of our ancestors until this task is done.
And, just as the leaders of Douglass’ day utilized agitation and protest to promote and defend the interests of Black people, we must use the tools at our disposal today, marching on ballot boxes, lobbying, marches/demonstrations, economic sanctions/boycotts … to confront the structures of white supremacy that still constrain the aspirations of our people. We must not be lulled into apathy and inaction because there’s a “brother” in the White House. The fact that Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto became Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan respectively did not end the unequal status for the masses of women in these developing nations. Women in these countries are still fighting for their rightful place in the sun and no doubt will continue to do so until that goal is achieved. The words of Douglass from another famous speech are instructive in this regard: “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never has and it never will.” We must continue the struggle until we have achieved full socio-economic equity/parity in this land -- anything less than that would be a betrayal of the struggle of our ancestors.
Finally, there is an even greater mission that Douglass’ Fourth of July oration calls us to assume. We must be the conscience of this country, speaking truth to power and articulating a vision of a new society devoid of greed, corruption, hypocrisy and extremes of wealth and poverty. This was Martin Luther King’s wish when he called for a “radical revolution of values” that would transform America from a “thing oriented society to a person-oriented society.” He went on to say that, “true compassion is more than flinging a coin at a beggar, it comes to see that the edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Our work will not be done until we have helped to create a more just and humane society with true “liberty and justice for all.”
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. He is the host of Night Talk, Wednesday evenings on WBAI 99.5 FM, Pacifica New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website and www.northstarnews.com. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.