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Faith of a Mustard Seed

by Barbara Woods-Washington
Barbara A. Woods Washington, M. Div.

Speaking on July 5, the day after Independence Day (something Douglass had insisted upon), and before a predominantly white audience, Douglass eloquently explained why the 4th of July was not a holiday celebrated by slaves, former slaves, or their descendants. The original Text is upward of 16 pages and most often used as excepts. Instead, Douglass explained,”the day was a time of mourning to those who had experienced slavery.”

“My subject, then, is American slavery. I shall see this day and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view. I will, in the name of humanity, in the name of liberty, in the name of the Constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery —the great sin and shame of America! “I will not equivocate; I will not excuse…. to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong? No! I will not.” …That which is inhuman cannot be divine!

These excerpts from several of Frederick Douglass’ writings and Orations transports us to July 5th 1852 –exactly 172 years ago to date! What, to the American slave, is your Fourth 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.

…Take the American slave trade which, we are told by the papers, is especially prosperous just now. . . .This trade is one of the peculiarities of American institutions. It is carried on in all the large towns and cities in one-half of this confederacy; and millions are pocketed every year, by dealers in this horrid traffic. In several states, this trade is a chief source of wealth.

What to The Slave is the 4th of July? For the present it is enough to affirm the equal manhood of the Negro race it is not astonishing that while we are plowing planting and reaping all kinds of mechanical tools erecting houses constructing bridges building ships working in metal and brass iron copper silver and gold that while we are reading writing and ciphering acting as clerks merchants and secretaries having among us lawyers doctors ministers poets authors editors orders and teachers that while we are engaged in all manner of enterprise coming to other men digging gold in California capturing the whale in the Pacific feeding sheep and cattle on the hillside living moving acting thinking planning living and families as husbands wives and children and above all confessing and worshiping the Christian God and looking hopefully for life and mortality beyond the grave we are called upon to prove that we are men.

But a still more inhuman, disgraceful, and scandalous state of things remains to be presented. By an act of the American Congress, not yet two years old, slavery has been nationalized in its most horrible and revolting form. New York has become as Virginia; and the power to hold, hunt, and sell men, women, and children as slaves remains no longer a mere state institution, but is now an institution of the whole United States. The power is co-extensive with the Star-Spangled Banner and American Christianity. …For black men there are neither law, justice, humanity, nor religion. The Fugitive Slave Law makes mercy to them a crime; and bribes the judge who tries them. An American judge gets ten dollars for every victim he consigns to slavery, and five, when he fails to do so. The minister of American justice is bound by the law to hear but one side; and that side, is the side of the oppressor. Let this damning fact be perpetually told. Let it be thundered around the world, that, in tyrant-killing, king-hating, people-loving, democratic, Christian America, the seats of justice are filled with judges who hold their offices under an open and palpable bribe, and are bound, in deciding in the case of a man’s liberty, to hear only his accusers! . . .

The church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent divines, who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system.”

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