Dear Howard University Community,
On July 5, 1852, 76 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Frederick Douglass, the great orator, abolitionist and future trustee of Howard University, delivered his famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”. In addressing the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, he asked whether they meant to mock him by inviting him to speak during a celebration in which he could take no joy or pleasure. “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine,” Douglass said. “You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
Contrary to the way white Americans celebrated their nation’s independence, Black Americans at the time, both free and enslaved, commemorated the Fourth of July as a day of mourning. It was a reminder that they were not entitled to the rights that were so pivotal to our nation’s founding. Where the revolutionaries in 1776 felt obliged to wage a war so that they and their fellow citizens could enjoy independence, liberty, autonomy and self-determination, they did not feel compelled to extend those rights to Black people.
So what, in the year 2022, should the Black community in the United States of America make of the Fourth of July?
Certainly at the time of Douglass’s speech, and still even to this day, Black Americans do not enjoy the same rights as others. To be sure, progress has been made, rights have been won and a more substantial life has been achieved for so many in our community. But the promises of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” cannot be said to apply equally to all.
However, it is the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, embedded in our nation’s founding and irrevocably attached to the Fourth of July that give definition to our work to better this country. Because of the principles that were so powerfully declared when the founders sought independence from Britain, we know what we are striving to achieve.
In the same speech that Douglass excoriated the hypocrisy of the Fourth of July, he also offered words of praise for the founders. “They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory,” he said. We are better equipped to pursue equality and justice for those who are overlooked and underserved in our society because those principles are foundational to our national identity, even if they have never yet been truly realized.
Douglass’s speech demonstrated a vitally important concept: Our actions in the present have the power to change the past. Yes, our work today is critical because we are charting a new course for the future. But just as importantly, what we do right now can change the history that has led to where we are.
History is defined not just by a set of facts but by how we interpret and reinterpret events that transpired in the past. Of course, a speech in 1852 cannot change what happened in 1776. But Douglass can recast the meaning of that hallowed date.
By 1852, the Fourth of July was simplistically understood as a day of triumph and freedom. But Douglass’s speech served to complicate those associations. Afterward and to this day, the Fourth of July not only stands for the ideals of liberty and independence, but also for the notion of a nation unfinished, of ideals unfulfilled. Douglass’s speech has now become just as much a part of the history of the Fourth of July as the Declaration of Independence.
Today, I believe that we are capable of both celebrating the promises of the Fourth of July as we simultaneously lament their lack of fulfillment. We can experience joy for the founding of our beloved nation, while also condemning its hypocrisies.
For too long, the perspective and experience of Black people had been left out of America’s past. As we reinforce the presence of the Black community in our society’s present and future, it is important that we position the Black experience back at the center of our shared history as well.
In observance of Independence Day, the University will close today, Friday, July 1 at 3 p.m., and will reopen Tuesday, July 5, 2022.
Best wishes for a safe and enjoyable holiday.
Excellence in Truth and Service,
Wayne A. I. Frederick, M.D., MBA
Charles R. Drew Professor of Surgery