On the day after Independence Day, today’s Thoughtful Thursday offerings give us food for thought about celebrating these United States at a time where we feel so far from united. The first is a series of excerpts from Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is The Fourth of July”, a powerful speech he gave to a group of New York abolitionists on July 5, 1852, 166 years ago to the day. Many thanks to Dennis Walcott, C.E.O. of the Queens Library, for sending this speech our way from TeachingAmericanHistory.org.
The second is a poem from Hanif Abdurraqib, author of “The Crown Ain’t Worth Much”, his first poetry collection, which was nominated for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award, and of the essay collection “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us”. After the poem you will see a quote from Abdurraqib explaining how this work came to be. This poem and quote is courtesy of poets.org, a wonderful poetry site which offers a poem-a-day subscription, and we at GCP heartily recommend that you subscribe. It is such a pleasure to receive a poem in your inbox each morning to contemplate and share with family and friends. Enjoy.
What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?
Frederick Douglass reminds this group of New York abolitionists that the Fourth of July, though a day of celebration for white Americans, was still a day of mourning for slaves and former slaves like himself, because they were reminded of the unfulfilled promise of equal liberty for all in the Declaration of Independence.
…My subject, then fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future…
…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…
…Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together…
…No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light…
July 5, 1852
How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This
dear reader, with our heels digging into the good
mud at a swamp’s edge, you might tell me something
about the dandelion & how it is not a flower itself
but a plant made up of several small flowers at its crown
& lord knows I have been called by what I look like
more than I have been called by what I actually am &
I wish to return the favor for the purpose of this
exercise. which, too, is an attempt at fashioning
something pretty out of seeds refusing to make anything
worthwhile of their burial. size me up & skip whatever semantics arrive
to the tongue first. say: that boy he look like a hollowed-out grandfather
clock. he look like a million-dollar god with a two-cent
heaven. like all it takes is one kiss & before morning,
you could scatter his whole mind across a field.
“I was at a reading shortly after the election, and the poet (who was black) was reading gorgeous poems, which had some consistent and exciting flower imagery. A woman (who was white) behind me—who thought she was whispering to her neighbor—said ‘How can black people write about flowers at a time like this?’ I thought it was so absurd in a way that didn’t make me angry but made me curious. What is the black poet to be writing about ‘at a time like this’ if not to dissect the attractiveness of a flower—that which can arrive beautiful and then slowly die right before our eyes? I thought flowers were the exact thing to write about at a time like this, so I began this series of poems, all with the same title. I thought it was much better to grasp a handful of different flowers, put them in a glass box, and see how many angles I could find in our shared eventual demise.”