This morning, despite a summer cold, I sat on the porch eating fresh-picked strawberries and watermelon from Gill’s Farm up 209 toward Kingston. I’d bought the watermelon 10 days ago, and left it out in the sun, but when Mo got here she put it in the fridge. It was, as William Carlos Williams once said about some plums he stole from the icebox, cold, and oh, so delicious. I was trying not to be greedy as we had houseguests who were leaving soon, and the watermelon was really for them.
Today is the 5th of July. To most Americans, it is the day after fireworks, and parades, and backyard barbeques, soda, and pretzels and beer, as Nat King Cole sang in a memorable early ‘60s hit, Roll out those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer.
But Nat King Cole was black. For him, and for my friend Stan, with whom I’ve taught America for nearly twenty years, and for most African-Americans, the 4th of July is a holiday fraught with painful contradiction. So also was it for the anti-slavery orator and ex-slave, Frederick Douglass, who refused to speak on the 4th of July, addressing the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society on the following day, in 1852, delivering a long, complex, and moving speech he’d titled The Meaning of July Fourth To The Negro.
Douglass wasn’t in better form as a writer and orator than on that day. His work remains one of the signal documents of American rhetoric, and a model for the presentation of a complex and bitter set of truths, under difficult circumstances, using the music of Biblical passage, the twists and turns of irony, the calling forth of emotion, first in himself, then in his listeners, a culmination that turned upward from the valley of bitterness to a proposal for hope. It was, it must have been, one of the central models for John Kennedy’s Ask Not Inaugural speech, and it was certainly one of the foundations for Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech.
Both of those were delivered in the ceremonial landscapes of American history and idealism. Kennedy spoke from the steps of the United States Capitol, minutes after taking the oath of office; it was cold, but sunny, sunny enough that Robert Frost could not read the poem he’d written for the occasion, and instead recited from memory one of his most ambiguous portraits of America, The Gift Outright.
The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.
Martin Luther King’s speech was delivered from the opposite end of the great axis in Washington, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, to hundreds of thousands of African Americans, and many white Americans as well, who had come to demand equal citizenship in this nation a century after Emancipation.
Douglass began his speech with praise for the 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 great men, too—great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. 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.
But it was that small hesitation embedded in the middle sentence which Douglass meticulously unpacked: The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable. The Ladies of Rochester understood full well what he meant. He had already refused to speak to them on the appropriate, the ceremonial day, and there he stood, black as coal, stunningly handsome, his wild African hair streaked with grey, in a frock coat: a paradox of his time. He knew, as they knew, that he was a symbol as well as a personage; his every word proved the lie to the arguments of slaveholders.
His speech rose to a fury toward the end:
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.
This was not the language expected on a day of patriotism and national self-congratulation. Were such words spoken today, some overstuffed media head, a Beck, would declare him unpatriotic, order him to leave the country, foam and pound and fulminate until time for the 30-second commercial that earned him his breathless salary.
But those are people who do not know what it is to stand in the shoes of others. They only know the righteousness of their own stance, their own cause. They are like the slaveowners of that earlier time, for whom the necessity of holding slaves to preserve their dignity, their wealth, their way of life, necessitated the creation of ideologies that rendered them human, others not.
Douglass was the living antidote to that empty self-serving rhetoric. He was smarter than his oratorical opponents, then and now. He knew that his very stance at the podium in that Rochester hall on a hot day was proof of all that had to be denied if slaves were to be held.
I ate the watermelon this morning. And thought about all the pictures of pickaninnies holding watermelon slices and smiling apishly at the daguerreotype camera, the carte-de-visite camera, the stereo camera, the Speed Graphic, the Leica, and Polaroid, the digital handheld. Oh, Golly! But I’se Happy! reads the caption on one, published by a plagiarizer of Jacob Riis, one Sigmund Krausz of Chicago, copyrighting in 1893. Stupid little pickaninnies: so easily mollified. They sing in their chains; they are happy in their enslavement, their defilement, their unhumanness, for they are by nature unhuman.
Watermelon was not a part of the slave diet as the slaveholder provided it. Slaveholders offered the diet given to beasts of burden: high in carbohydrates and fats, to drive the engine of manual labor until it burst or broke down.
There were, most historians suggest, three broad types of American slaveholders. The most draconian simply bought the strongest slaves, drove them till they died, and then bought the next crop. The more long-sighted, or those further from the cheaper slave-markets along the coastline, sought to produce a breeding stock, to develop a self-sustaining crop of slaves, and so they fed theirs better, worked them a little less hard, encouraged their breeding, or participated in it, through rape and miscegenation.
The last group cried into their wine. They declared the Negroes human. They believed, as did Jefferson, one of those great men—great enough to give frame to a great age, that they loved the slave women they bedded, and their fathers and brothers, too. They wished they could free their slaves, wised they could provide them the skills they deserved. Once in a great while, they did what they wished they could do.
Even those slaveholders, though, didn’t think much of what they fed their slaves, or allowed them to eat. Buy they did provide them, or some of them, small plots of land upon which they might grow something that might supplement the draft-horse diet that was generally recommended for the efficient working of a slave.
And one of those things they grew was watermelon. Four cups of watermelon, about half a small melon, provides a full complement of vitamin C, healthy doses of vitamins A, B1 and B6, and the minerals potassium and magnesium that are crucial to muscle resuscitation after hard work. Rich in anti-oxidants, notably lycopene, watermelon also provided a means of replenishing fluids in rapidly-absorbed form.
Frederick Douglass ended his speech to the Ladies of Rochester, New York, quoting a poem by the emancipationist William Lloyd Garrison:
God speed the year of jubilee
The wide world o’er!
When from their galling chains set free,
Th’ oppress’d shall vilely bend the knee,
And wear the yoke of tyranny
Like brutes no more.
That year will come, and freedom’s reign.
To man his plundered rights again
It would be another decade before the beleaguered government of Abraham Lincoln would present the Emancipation Proclamation, and—it seemed, for a time—end the great hypocrisy that made July 4th an abomination for so many who knew, more richly, more deeply, what freedom might truly mean.
Douglass gave his very last speech in Washington in 1894, thirty years after the abolition of slavery. But his speech was not from the steps of the Capitol, nor from some other ceremonial site. He spoke in a small African Methodist Episcopalian church, even as new forms of enslavement were being invented, using financial tools, tools of terrorism, tools of social ostracism and control. Just twenty years later, at the height of the Progressive Era, DW Griffith would release one of the first full-length mass-market movies, The Birth of a Nation, excoriating the Negro as stupid, sexually uncontrollable, subhuman, and the KuKluxKlan as the principled force of Progress and Civilization.
Douglass already saw what had happened; how his success had been forcibly trumped. But he ended his career as an orator, as one of America’s most important moral intellectuals, with a very different statement, a statement of hope, aspiration, idealism, and a reinterpretation of the 4th of July:
It announced the advent of a nation, based upon human brotherhood and the self-evident truths of liberty and equality. Its mission was the redemption of the world from the bondage of ages. Apply these sublime and glorious truths to the situation now before you. Put away your race prejudice. Banish the idea that one class must rule over another. Recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizen are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest, and your problem will be solved; and, whatever may be in store for it in the future, whether prosperity, or adversity; whether it shall have foes without, or foes within, whether there shall be peace, or war; based upon the eternal principles of truth, justice and humanity, and with no class having any cause of compliant or grievance, your Republic will stand and flourish forever.
Last night, on network television, various winners of various pop talent shows, along with smiling celebrities just out of rehab or about to reenter it, pundits with contracts, talking heads smiling into the words projected on their hidden teleprompters, sang the right songs, spoke the right words, words I have never, in my 40 years as a scholar and writer on America, understood or embraced when spoken by the politicians, the propagandists, the puppets: patriotism, freedom. As the tv cut from fireworks display to fireworks display, each more overwrought and noisy than the one before it, I closed the door and walked out into the hayfield where, after a time, the fireflies surrounded me, and above me a canopy of perpetual stars wheeled at a pace too slow for my eyes, too slow for Douglass’s patience with the eternity of slaveholding. And on the morning of July the 5th, honoring Douglass, I stole the watermelon, and it was cold, and oh, so delicious.