By Phoebe Godfrey
I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.
—Frederick Douglass, July 5, 1852
It is July 4, 2023, and I am called to revisit the powerful and poignant words of the great orator and former slave Frederick Douglass. In his speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” he was able to both honor the Founding Fathers “for the good they did, and the principles they contended for” (no doubt a necessary political stance) while nevertheless still calling attention to the dire contradictions embedded in their words due to slavery (which included their ownership of humans from Africa as slaves) and its justification through legally based racism. As Douglass points out so contrastingly, “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.… You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
Yes, he must have mourned, for what else could he, or any others who were still or had been enslaved, have done? Of course he/they struggled and still are struggling as slavery’s legacy continues and thus, I am sure, Douglass would still be mourning, as should any of us be who have ever been moved by the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence and contrasted them with our failure to make them a reality. For the Declaration unequivocally states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” and yet we still have not achieved these lofty goals. In fact, it can be stated that because of the so-called “highest court of the land,” the Supreme Court, we have been going backwards. So, for me, if today is to mean anything, it must be a reminder of how far we have yet to go and how, until we get there, we too must also mourn, even as we continue to struggle!
Therefore, today I am not marching in our local parade (as I usually do while engaging in some manner of protest), I am not having a bar-b-q, I am not socializing, but rather I am mourning by writing this piece and listing all the things for which I am mourning.
In presenting what I am mourning, I want to affirm that my inclusion of other reasons to mourn besides slavery are not in any way intended to question Douglass’s focus on those people who were, or whose ancestors were, once enslaved. Rather my goal is to recognize that in our collective mourning we are stronger. Even if my list does not include all your reasons, it is nevertheless an attempt to give you permission to voice your own. For the words of the Declaration, I think, can only be viscerally understood by those who still have not been “included within the pale of this glorious anniversary.” As such, on this day we must continue to listen to the least powerful among us, as opposed to allowing those for whom these words have delivered Rights, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness (tragically, most often at the expense of others) to declare them a done deal for the rest of us.
“You may rejoice,” usually epitomized by the waving of the stars and stripes as if the flag speaks for all, “I [we] must mourn.” Today I mourn…
that Douglass’s descendants still do not enjoy what he called “the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence” (see video made by NPR of his descendants reading his speech in 2020).
that the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action in universities will further impact the exclusiveness of the Declaration (while the members of the Court make sure they enjoy their own Rights, Liberty, and pursuit of Happiness, even to being above the law).
that the tyranny of the British monarchy was merely exchanged for the tyranny of capitalism and corporate control over all aspects of government, never for the people—always for profit.
the Supreme Court’s ruling that separation of church and state does not extend to website design for LGBTQIA-2-Spirit people and that selective prohibitions from the Old Testament can once again become law. (Why focus only on those who are “homosexual” when meanwhile designing websites for those who commit adultery, talk back to their parents, eat unripe fruit, and work on the Sabbath, who are also on God’s kill list and thus should also be on the plaintiff’s list of unworthy customers?)
the Supreme Court’s unpopular, unrealistic, and sexist ruling on reproductive rights. What have we done since to support the Life and Liberty of those who can get pregnant? Nothing! This ruling was merely about misogyny, patriarchy, and control, with nothing about loving the born—only the unborn!
the Supreme Court’s ruling on student loan debt. Even the God of the Old Testament dictated in Deuteronomy 15 that every seven years there should be a release of debts…so much for the Court’s consistency!
that there are daily reports of fires, heatwaves, floods, and species extinctions, and yet the focus remains on whether the Dow Jones is up or down, as if as long as somebody is making money somewhere, it justifies the destruction of Life (isn’t that one of the Declaration’s promises?) on earth.
that daily shootings in this country continue to be a leading cause of death of young people—and this isn’t just about the mass shootings, but the ones in our impoverished cities that go mostly unreported.
that Indigenous voices are still not being respected, let alone lands being returned, nor are the Indigenous being seen as holding key insights into practices that could help us address the toxicity of our own culture, which is resulting in climate collapse for all.