On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass delivered a speech to the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society in New York on the occasion of Independence Day. While Douglass himself was free, having escaped from slavery years before, slavery was still very much the law of the land in the Southern states, and the North was far from a safe haven. The question of slavey was especially heated across the country in the early 1850s as the nation slowly moved toward civil war.

In his masterful speech, Douglas began by acknowledging the importance of American Independence in the history of the world, and notes the great respect he has for founding fathers,  

“Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men…They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.”

Yet he goes on to state what perhaps should be obvious, which is that this celebration of freedom means something much different for him and his people:

“I am not included within the pale of 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 July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” 

He then asks the question that would become the speech’s title, “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.”

Over the past several years, as I’ve reflected on this speech I have come to appreciate the question Douglass poses as a jarring but essential reminder that while we share a history as a country and a people, we remember this history differently (a fact that has become painfully obvious today in school systems around the country). 

Yet what is of even more importance is taking the next step of recognizing that the same is true today; that while we share a country in the present, we experience life and the world differently—as individuals and groups and various communities.

And our hope in these things, as I see it, is two-fold. First, we should seek to create a world in which all people share in a common experience of acceptance and opportunity—of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But this common experience should not, and need not, come at the expense of the richness of our individual lives and the traditions and cultures that scripture tells us are reflections of the imagination of the creator. 

Holding these two in tension is a challenge, to say the least. But a holy one. And what we as a country might see as our uniquely American project, for us in the church can be a spiritual discipline: learning to see the unique image of God that we all bear while at the same time building a beloved community together. It may be that one is not possible without the other, and that what feels like tension will resolve in harmony.

In that spirit, we remember that today is Juenteenth, the most recent federal holiday, signed into law last year. Yet it’s a holiday long held within the Black community as the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. It was on June 19, 1865, that Union soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free — two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. 

So it should come as no surprise that we as a nation are still working out just what this holiday means for us, or even what it should mean that we have two holidays celebrating independence. 

Good. Let us work it out. Let us talk, let us listen, let us learn, and let us in the church pray together about what God might be revealing among us in this moment through the multiplicity of our histories and experiences.

And let us take heart and find inspiration in the words of Frederick Douglas near the end of his speech

“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…”The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope.”




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