July Four Ironies

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Mon, 07/04/2016 - 9:00am to 10:00am
Photo of Frederick Douglass around 1850
Frann Michel on African American speakers on liberty and equality


The fourth of July in the United States is not just a holiday when white people celebrate killing each other over land that wasn't theirs. It's about a document; it's about the contradictions and possibilities in the language of freedom and equality. The fourth of July is Independence Day, commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress, declaring the United States a nation separate from Great Britain. The second sentence of the Declaration 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.

These ideals look back to the French Revolution's Declaration of the Rights of Man, and forward to later attempts to extend and fulfill their spirit. The 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments corrected the gender of the assertion by declaring "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal." One hundred years later, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states that "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."

But as Hannah Arendt later observed, not everyone is recognized as having the right to have rights. The irony of the US Declaration of Independence was hard to miss. The praise of liberty and the declaration of all men's equality came from a group including slaveholders, who presumably did not see the people whom they held as slaves as equally deserving of the liberty they claimed for themselves. The abolitionist Thomas Day commented at the time,

If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.

So when Frederick Douglass was invited speak on the occasion in 1852, 76 years after the declaration, thirty-four years after Douglass's birth to an enslaved woman in Maryland, fourteen years after Douglass escaped from slavery, seven years after his British friends and supporters bought his freedom, and nine years before the civil war, he foregrounded that irony.

Here's Danny Glover reading from that speech (note especially minutes 1:03-5:21).

As you can hear, Douglass in fact did "pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke." His eloquent denunciation of a slave nation celebrating a declaration of purported liberty and equality forms part of a long tradition of Black oratory, skillfully deploying ironic understatement, sarcasm, metaphor, allusion--a full panoply of rhetorical strategies to agitate for social and political change. He's calling on his listeners to take action to make the language of the Declaration a reality.

One of the most recent instances of such fire and thunder, whirlwind and earthquake, is Jesse Williams' recent speech at the BET awards, which at least one blogger suggests has set the "media . . . on fire" and "ignited a crucial spark in the African American community." It has inspired a hashtag on twitter, and a poem by Alice Walker.

Williams is best known as an actor, appearing regularly on Grey's Anatomy, a long-running multiracial-cast drama created by Shonda Rhimes. But Williams is also known as an activist—he joined the Ferguson October protests and produced a documentary about the Black Lives Matter movement. He produces Question Bridge, an art project about the experience of black men in America, works with Sankofa, an organization dedicated to ending racial injustice, and is on the board of the national civil rights organization The Advancement Project.

The eloquence and density of Williams' speech is itself an assertion of power, a testament to the importance of genuine education and the traditions of black linguistic skill and wordplay. He puns on the word "brand" to suggest commodity fetishism is a form of slavery. He alludes to the song "Strange Fruit," made famous by Billie Holiday, to suggest cultural appropriation is a metaphorical lynching. He recasts the meaning of Abraham Lincoln's reference to the biblical verse "a house divided against itself cannot stand" in order instead to highlight the systemic centrality of black oppression to the American project and the possibility and power of active resistance. He glances toward the historical invention of racial categories in the 18th century, and registers the superexploitation of black labor as the economic underpinning of the nation's wealth. And in his comments on police violence against people of color he insists on the equal rights and freedom that the Declaration of Independence reserved for white men who owned property.

Listen to Jesse Williams accepting the BET Humanitarian award here.

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