By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
“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 sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, 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 the United States, at this very hour.”
Excerpt from speech given by Frederick Douglass on July 5, 1852.
Douglass gave a speech at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence held at Rochester’s Corinthian Hall.
In his 2010 book, “The State of the American Mind: Stupor and Pathetic Docility Volume II” African professor Amechi Okolo has included this information about Douglass’ July 5, 1852 speech: “On July 5, 1852, Douglass gave a speech at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, held at Rochester’s Corinthian Hall. It was biting oratory, in which the speaker told his audience, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” And he asked them, ‘Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?’”
During this month of February when many acknowledge/celebrate the contributions, culture and history of Africans there are several events around and about the city, the province and the country. At these events oftentimes Africans are invited to speak. I say “oftentimes” because even though this is supposed to be Black History Month/African History Month/African Liberation Month you will find that sometimes the speaker can by no stretch of the imagination be described as African or Black.
Take for instance Tim Wise a White man who is considered an authority on anti-racism and is invited to speak at Black History Month events. On such occasions I am reminded of Frederick Douglass’ July 5, 1852 speech. In that speech Douglass took to task the White people who were so insensitive as to invite a formerly enslaved African to hopefully give a glowing speech in praise of American Independence when slavery as an institution was very much a part of the American society. Similarly it is at least insensitive to invite a White person who would never have experienced what it is to be an African living in a White supremacist culture to speak at a Black History Month event.
Black History Month/African History Month/African Liberation Month began as Negro History Week in 1926. This month was chosen by Carter Godwin Woodson because he wanted to honour Frederick Douglass who chose February 14 as his birth date. Douglass like many other enslaved Africans did not have their birth date documented. Douglass chose February 14 because he remembered his mother referring to him as her little “Valentine.” Douglass thought that he was born on February 14, 1818 but there is no documentation of his birth.
In his autobiography Douglass wrote: “I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton in Talbot County, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time.” Douglass wrote in his autobiography that he only saw his mother about four or five times in his life before she transitioned when he was seven years old. She was sold when he was an infant and would walk about 12 miles to see her child because she was sold to people who lived in the same area. Many enslaved Africans never saw their children or other relatives once they were sold.
In “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself” which was first published in 1845 Douglass wrote: “It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor.”
In his autobiography Douglass wrote about the horrors of slavery he had witnessed as a child and as an adult. Douglass wrote about witnessing his aunt being brutalized by the White man who enslaved many of his relatives: “He was a cruel man, hardened by a long life of slaveholding. He would at times seem to take great pleasure in whipping a slave. I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin.”
Douglass’ autobiography was used by abolitionists and the anti-slavery movement in which he was very actively involved. He is credited with playing a major role in the eventual abolition of slavery in the USA.
Douglass (February 14, 1818 – February 20, 1895) was an abolitionist, human rights and women’s rights advocate. He was definitely a man before his time. When the history of the abolition movement is written the heroes are invariably White. Not surprising as Chinua Achebe, the late Igbo author, is famous for this quote: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
Fortunately, Douglass wrote his autobiography and much of his work is archived at the American Library of Congress. It is important for us to know our history not only during February but every day. Because our names and languages were taken away from us during the centuries of enslavement many Africans in the Diaspora are lost and disconnected. Now is a good time to start reconnecting. Attend African History events and read, read, read!!