Guest columnist Arlene Avakian: Douglass called out sickness of denying democracy’s original sin


Published: 07-21-2023 5:01 PM

On July 3, I went to a public reading of Frederick Douglass’ speech, “Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro” hosted by the Northampton Historical Society. About 200 people attended and some of us read parts of the speech, which had been divided into paragraphs. The reading was one of 41 in the state.

The event lived up to all of my expectations, not the least of which was the speech itself, which I had not read for many years. What struck me initially was Douglass’ refusal to refer to the U.S. as a country he was a part of, always calling it “your country,” the country of his presumably mostly white audience.

He begins by lauding the ideals of democracy, liberty and freedom from tyranny, particularly as they were expressed in the Declaration of Independence. He then launches into a view of those lofty ideals from the perspective of enslaved people and builds up to an unrelenting and stinging critique of the hypocrisy of democracy within a country whose enormous wealth was built on the institution of slavery. The most famous paragraph of the speech is explicit.

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 sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your sounds of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, 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.

But he goes further, arguing that the U.S. is severely damaged by this dichotomy of the radical and unique idea for its time that “all men are created equal” and slavery.

“Be warned!” he exhorts. “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, and let the weight of twenty million crush and destroy it forever.”

Hearing these words, I thought of James Baldwin, who more than 100 years after Douglass’ words, wrote eloquently about the sickness wreaked on white people and the country by the denial of our history; the denial of the original sin of turning people into commodities for profit; the denial of the incompatibility of democracy and slavery; and the psychic damage wrought on whites for refusing to see what is in front of our eyes.

Our liberty and wealth were built on the stolen land of the Indigenous people and the “free” labor of people kidnapped from their homelands and kept in bondage for 246 years. The refusal to acknowledge the inhumanity that supported the slavocracy engenders in white people, Baldwin says, an inability to grow into adulthood, a need to be seen as innocents, and makes monsters of us.

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Hearing these words is particularly poignant this week as the Supreme Court continues to alter the Constitution with decisions that take away rights — and as it did so in the case of the affirmative action decision, on the basis of the 14th Amendment, which was specifically written to protect the formerly enslaved.

We need no more evidence than that decision, with its denial and distortion of the history of slavery in the U.S., to know that the “horrible reptile” Douglass evokes is still alive and eating at the soul of our nation. We need to learn from Douglass’ and Baldwin’s invitations to grow beyond this history by accepting it and engaging in action to make progressive change that will benefit us all.

Arlene Avakian lives in Northampton and is a professor emeritus from UMass.