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Frederick Douglass Knew What False Patriotism Was

The problem wasn’t the vision of the country we remember on this day. The fault lay in the fact that some got left out. Douglass had the audacity to believe that America's story was not finished until the country kept all her promises.

Illustration by Akshita Chandra/The New York Times

In 1852 Frederick Douglass delivered what may be his most famous address, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” This time of year, quotations from the speech dart around Black social media as a subtle pushback on uncomplicated celebrations of American independence.

Douglass wondered what the enslaved might say if they were called from the plantations to reflect on themes of liberty, justice and equality. How might their words differ from the prose of the free orators normally asked to comment on American ideals? There is a revolution in the reorientation of perspective, when the powerless are given space to speak. That hasn’t changed.

On Independence Day, what would those who lost loved ones in the Buffalo mass shooting have to say about justice in America? If we summoned Black women, who disproportionally experience death and trauma during childbirth, to reflect on the inalienable right to life, what hard truths might we hear about their fears for themselves and their unborn children? What musings about liberty could we expect from those who endure unjust sentencing or are pulled over for driving while Black?

Our nation’s problems and the litany of lingering injustices are not unknown to us, but there is a certain pressure to put our complaints aside around this holiday in particular. On the Fourth of July we are encouraged to unfurl our flags, belt out a rendition of “God Bless America” and grill burgers in humble gratitude.

Reflecting on the demand for patriotism, Douglass said “As a people, Americans are remarkably familiar with all facts which make in their own favor. It is a fact, that whatever makes for the wealth or for the reputation of Americans will be found by Americans.”

Our country wants a certain version of the American story told and will laud anyone willing to tell it. But uncritical celebration is a limited and false definition of patriotism. Instead, recounting the full story of America and asking it to be better than it is can be an expression of love.

Douglass challenged the idea that certain truths should be overlooked. He composed this speech in the aftermath of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required all escaped slaves to be returned to their enslavers. He said this act of Congress turned the nation into a “hunting ground for men” and marred the whole Republic because “your lawmakers have commanded all good citizens to engage in this hellish sport.”

Douglass put his protest into conversation with the ideals celebrated on the Fourth. He recognized that the founding fathers were “great men” who “staked their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor on the cause of their country.”

The problem wasn’t the vision of the country we remember on this day. The fault lay in the fact that some got left out.

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Douglass had the audacity to believe that America's story was not finished until the country kept all her promises. There is a hidden affection in the stinging words of rebuke.

Over 100 years later, in his “I Have a Dream” speech, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would echo Douglass: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men — yes, Black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.”

Today if Americans protest systemic injustice or resist the efforts to remove the history of racial oppression from school curriculum, it is the demonstrators, not those invested in intentional forgetting, who some people deem anti-American.

Douglass’s patriotism was more than resistance. In the early years of the Civil War, he saw signs of unity and hope. In 1862 he delivered another July Fourth speech. As David Blight notes in his biography of Douglass, the orator’s language underwent a change from 1852 to 1862.

A decade prior, Douglass, speaking to white Americans, referred to the founders as “your fathers.” Douglass and other Black Americans were outsiders. In 1862, he took ownership of them, including African Americans in the grand narrative of American history. The “you” of the American Revolution and its principles became a “we” during the battle against the Confederacy. Speaking of the Union effort in the Civil War, he said, “We are only continuing the tremendous struggle, which your fathers and my fathers began 86 years ago.” Because white Americans had been willing to suffer for Black freedom during the Civil War, we were starting to live up to the idea that all men were created equal.

He understood that no great thing could be had without genuine effort and pain, and that holds true today. One cannot simply read more Black literature after violent and public deaths of African Americans. We have to do the hard work of reforming policing, undoing gerrymandered voting districts and eliminating myths about differences between Black and white people.

On Independence Day in 1875, Douglass took to the podium a third time. Echoing his first speech, he asked what Black people had to do with the Fourth of July. Now, years after the Civil War, Black people’s place in the American narrative was an established fact: “Colored people have had something to do with almost everything of vital im­portance in the life and progress of this great country.”

I don’t think we have to be proud of everything this country has done to be proud of our progress despite unrelenting opposition. The saga of Black people in America is not just a tragedy; it is also a triumph.

Douglass recognized that his version of the American story was not often recounted. So he called for a Black press to rise up and make it known. America had to face the truth and only those who had endured its hypocrisies but still maintained some hope had the perspective to tell it.

Douglass expanded the meaning of American patriotism. Rather than focusing on the gratitude the country demanded of us, he reminded the nation what it still owed its populace. The nation could not request songs of praise without including Black accomplishments in its lyrics. It could not laud the founders of this nation without following their example by continuing to fight for justice for all.

Our national tendency to see only the best of America was standing in the way of truly becoming great. Douglass thought enough of this country to tell it the truth. We would be better off if more of us did the same.

Esau McCaulley (@esaumccaulley) is a contributing Opinion writer and an assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. He is the author of “How Far to the Promised Land: One Black Family’s Story of Hope and Survival in the American South and“Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope.”  He lives in Wheaton, Ill., with his wife and four children.