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Seeing July 4th with New Eyes

On Sunday, I had the honor of joining with many KI members to take part in a public reading of Frederick Douglass’ iconic essay, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” We joined with neighboring faith communities and, in the shade of a pavilion at Wall Park, read Douglass’ storied words paragraph by paragraph. We held the event only days after Juneteenth and about a week prior to July 4th. In these ways, we challenged ourselves to think carefully about American history, the ways in which we must do better than early generations of Americans and bring to our barbecues and days at the beach a level of perspective.

At a time when compassion and empathy seem to be waning and ignorance and misinformation are all the rage, Douglass’ words feel desperately important.

Douglass gave the speech on July 8, 1852 in Rochester at an event organized by the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. At the time there were over 3 million slaves in the United States. The Fugitive Slave Act rewarded judges $10 for slaves that were caught and returned to their owner, $5 for cases that were dismissed. The accused were never allowed to defend themselves in court. It would be another ten years before President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

The lengthy speech contains such pointed and fiery sections as this:

“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 shouts 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. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”

We must remember as Jews the suffering of all peoples. We cannot allow our heart to grow cold or jaded. Genesis has us ask outloud: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer of course is an equivocal “yes.” To be a Jew is to care about the hardship of others – all others. To be a Jew is to be a student of history and consider the ways in which we can learn from yesterday. Frederick Douglass represented bravery, selflessness and leadership. He was a prophet in his time. Like Moses, he was ready to speak truth to power and stand up tall to injustice.

We are fighting different fights than he was, but they are fights nonetheless. Slavery is over in America but racism is still prevalent. Homophobia, transphobia and xenophobia are all rampant in our own time. Indeed, there is no shortage of antisemitism in our nation today. Let us be among those who, like Frederick Douglass, had the courage and conviction to believe in a more accepting America. Let us be among those who did not give up on an America that made room for all its citizens, regardless of gender, sexuality, faith or ethnicity.

During this summer season, as we prepare to mark July 4th, let us draw strength from the brave souls that came before us and strive for a more equitable, peaceful and big-hearted country.