Not Light, but Fire

Each Fourth of July we make it a practice of reading the powerful words of Frederick Douglass spoken in Rochester, NY in July 1852.

What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? 

This year, these words in particular stood out for me:

“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

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 sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation 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.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.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival….”

What stands out for you?

Categories: Black historyTags: , , , , ,


  1. It is humbling and life-giving to share my life with you, as we have practiced this tradition for almost 20 years. Frederick Douglass’ words are the words which ring true each July 4th and everyday of the year.

  2. Who is our Douglas today? Who would have the courage to step up and say with the veracity of voice like he did in a slave owning, cowardly written constitution that was a collapse of conscience to keep the Southern representatives in the room. The tragedy today is the SCOTUS and White Nationalist Christian movements want to take us back in time to where Medicaid will only pay for leeches, and blood letting the health remedies of the 18th Century. And the right of a women to chose the health of her own body is now trumped by a glob of unconscious cells that have more voice that a grown adult who must care for the glob as is grows. And the SCOTUS says, send it back to the States to decide. If that was what what decided in 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation, their would still be some form of slavery and indentured workers legal today and being exploited by Capitalists without a conscience. That is why the SCOTUS exists. To lean toward the whole countries legal precedents not just a few biased states that have a limited visibility of national issues. If Texas could void all Federal laws, their would be slavery, guns in everyone’s holsters, and Bibles in every school being taught as the only truth. We can not and must not go backwards. Hang in there Chris. You are a nature inspired- voice of reason and compassion I actually agree with on the internet today. Cheers for your 4th of July celebration with reverence for Frederick Douglas’ courageous speech.

    • I hear you loud and clear, Marty. I hear some like Rev. William Barber of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign and various other voices that approach Douglass’s intensity of truth-telling, but honestly there are so few. We have to celebrate (and practice) independence of mind with serious critical thinking to move forward at all. Easy to feel powerless.

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