I recently read a biography on the life of Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. Born enslaved in Talbot County, Maryland, in February of 1818, the future Frederick Douglass escaped from bondage at the age of twenty. His story is a harrowing and horrific account of the evils of human depravity manifest in their atrocities toward humanity. It is, however, laced with determination, courage, and hope for what America could become, should she be subject to the fullness of ideals outlined in her founding documents.
In what has become one of his most recited, most recited speeches, the incomparable abolitionist, orator, and statesman Frederick Douglass addressed a Rochester audience in 1852, commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In deliberate language, he paid homage to the courage of the patriotic men who found it better to revolt than be subject to that which they found to be unjust treatment levied by the British crown. He affirmed that July 4th was indeed a monumental occasion to rejoice in blood-bought independence. But in faithfulness to the conditions of the time, he proclaimed, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
Douglass then powerfully and vividly portrayed the hypocrisy of the day. While freedom celebrations rang out, he juxtaposed the liberty and languish, freedom and fetters, triumph and trafficking occurring in what he called a “barbaric nation without rival.” Without abbreviation, the formerly enslaved Douglass painted a cringeworthy yet honest picture of American evil against men, women, and children. He concluded,
Yet even though his eyes had witnessed these despicable crimes, his heart bore the burden and his body the scars, he could not despair of this country. “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.”
Despite the darkness of the past and present he found hope in the principles and purposes of the founding documents. Life, liberty, justice, and virtue were antithetical to the existence of American Slavery, and although this brutal institution flourished under their watch, he concluded that the framework of those essential papers was still hostile to its existence.
For him and for us, those words remain true in spite of an inability to completely fulfill them. The inherent dignity and value of human beings is stamped upon us by our Creator and does not change based on class culture or creed. What greater statement can be made than this: We hold these truths to be self-evident that ALL men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights!
This uncomfortable reality is the lifeblood of my allegiance to America. My country, the land God divinely chose for my birth, is unique in declaration and peculiar in purpose. Its ideals are worth fighting for, and its promise, a banner to uphold. Like Douglass, I recall and lament all that my people, then and now, have endured to claim this rightful inheritance in a republic that was not crafted for them. But in identifying problems and acknowledging progress, I know that now is not a time for despair but for renewal. America’s strength lies within the ability of her people to generationally rebirth the fervor to fulfill the values we profess in spite of an unwillingness or inability to do so. Where there is lacking, we must fix it. Where there is a denial, we must inform it. Where there is miscarriage, we must redress it. This is our mandate. This is our charge.