Tag Archives: Literature

July 5, 1852 – What to the American slave is your Fourth of July?


repost – in memory

NMAAHCLonnie Bunch, museum director, historian, lecturer, and author, is proud to present A Page from Our American Story, a regular on-line series for Museum supporters. It will showcase individuals and events in the African American experience, placing these stories in the context of a larger story — our American story.

A Page From Our American Story

On July 5, 1852 approximately 3.5 million African Americans were enslaved — roughly 14% of the total population of the United States. That was the state of the nation when Frederick Douglass was asked to deliver a keynote address at an Independence Day celebration.

He accepted and, on a day white Americans celebrated their independence and freedom from the oppression of the British crown, Douglass delivered his now-famous speech What to the Slave is the Fourth of July. In it, Douglass offered one of the most thought provoking and powerful testaments to the hypocrisy, bigotry and inhumanity of slavery ever given.

Daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass
(1847-1852) by Samuel J. Miller.
The Art Institute of Chicago

Douglass told the crowd that the arguments against slavery were well understood. What was needed was “fire” not light on the subject; “thunder” not a gentle “shower” of reason. Douglass would tell the audience:

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 denounced.

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery, most likely in February 1818 — birth dates of slaves were rarely recorded. He was put to work full-time at age six, and his life as a young man was a litany of savage beatings and whippings. At age twenty, he successfully escaped to the North. In Massachusetts he became known as a voice against slavery, but that also brought to light his status as an escaped slave. Fearing capture and re-enslavement, Douglass went to England and continued speaking out against slavery.

He eventually raised enough money to buy his freedom and returned to America. He settled in Rochester, New York in 1847 and began to champion equality and freedom for slaves in earnest. By then, his renown extended far beyond America’s boundaries. He had become a man of international stature.

One suspects that Rochester city leaders had Douglass’ fame and reputation as a brilliant orator in mind when they approached him to speak at their Independence Day festivities. But with his opening words, Douglass’ intent became clear — decry the hypocrisy of the day as it played out in the lives of the slaves:

Fellow citizens, pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits, and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

You can easily imagine the wave of unease that settled over his audience. The speech was long, as was the fashion of the day. A link to the entire address can be found at the end of this Our American Story. When you read it you will discover that, to his credit, Douglass was uncompromising and truthful:

This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn … What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? … a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham … your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mock; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings … hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.

US Stamp honoring
Frederick Douglass, 1967.
US Postal Service

Reaction to the speech was strong, but mixed. Some were angered, others appreciative. What I’ve always thought most impressive about Douglass’ speech that day was the discussion it provoked immediately and in the weeks and months that followed.

Certainly much has changed since Douglass’ speech. Yet the opportunity to discuss and debate the important impact of America’s racial history is very much a part of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Douglass’ words remind us that many have struggled to ensure that the promise of liberty be applied equally to all Americans — regardless of race, gender or ethnicity. And that the struggle for equality is never over.

So, as we gather together at picnics, parades, and fireworks to celebrate the 4th of July, let us remember those, like Frederick Douglass, who fought and sacrificed to help America live up to its ideals of equality, fair play and justice.

Frederick Douglass’ life and words have left us a powerful legacy. His story, and the African American story, is part of us all.

To you and your family, have a joyous and safe Fourth of July and thank you for your interest in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

All the best,

Lonnie Bunch
Director

P.S. To read the full text Frederick Douglass’ speech of July 5, 1852, click here: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=162

We

hope you will consider making a contribution to the Museum. Thank you for your support.

1926 – The revival of Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” opened in New York ~ In the Library … “The Importance of Being Earnest”, by Oscar Wilde


Cover of "The Importance of Being Earnest...
Cover via Amazon

On This Day …Born on October 16, 1854 in Dublin, Irish writer Oscar Wilde

1895 – Oscar Wilde’s final play, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” opened at the St. James’ Theatre in London.

http://www.biography.com/people/oscar-wilde-9531078/videos

Oscar Wilde (1854) Wilde was an Irish poet , novelist, and playwright who mocked social conventions and scandalized English society with his unorthodox ideas and conduct. He is best known for his sophisticated, witty plays, among them Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest , as well as his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest, challenged Victorian morality in his writing and life, and was infamously imprisoned for being gay

In the library … Edgar Allen Poe


edgarallenpoe

http://www.biography.com/people/edgar-allan-poe-9443160/videos

Born January 19, 1809, Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. American short-story writer, poet, critic, and editor Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of mystery and horror initiated the modern detective story, and the atmosphere in his tales of horror is unrivaled in American fiction.

and on January 29 Raven receives accolades

His The Raven (1845) numbers among the best-known poems in national literature.

1845 – Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” was published for the first time in the “New York Evening Mirror.”

Slavery, Hollywood, and Public Discourse


NMAAHC -- National Museum of African American History and Culture

Lonnie Bunch, museum director, historian, lecturer, and author, is proud to present A Page from Our American Story, a regular on-line series for Museum supporters. It will showcase individuals and events in the African American experience, placing these stories in the context of a larger story — our American story.

A Page From Our American Story

Civil War era Photo of slaves on plantation Family on Smith’s Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina, circa 1862. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Slavery: perhaps the last, great unmentionable in public discourse. It is certainly a topic that even today makes people very uncomfortable, regardless of their race.

American society has often expressed its internal problems through its art. Perhaps the most powerful medium for important discussions since the turn of the last century has been the motion picture.

For decades Hollywood has attempted to address the issue of slavery. For the most part, films have represented the period of enslavement in a manner that reflected society’s comfort level with the issue at the time. Director D. W. Griffith’s 1915 silent drama, Birth of a Nation, for instance, depicted African Americans (white actors in black face) better off as slaves. Griffith’s movie showed the institution of slavery “civilizing” blacks. Birth even made it seem like slaves enjoyed their lives and were happy in servitude.

That wasn’t the case, of course, but it was what white society wanted to believe at the time.

Birth of a Nation movie poster

More than two decades after Birth of a Nation, the portrayal of African Americans in films had changed only a little. 1939 saw the release of one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed movies, Gone with the Wind. Producer David O. Selznick believed he was serving the black community with respect — he made sure the novel’s positive portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan was eliminated from the film, for example. But Gone with the Wind nevertheless treated the enslaved as relatively happy, loyal servants, a depiction that continued to reflect America’s segregated society. History was made, however, when Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award for her role as “Mammy.” Still, her part, and the parts of the other black actors drew harsh criticism from major African American newspapers and civil rights groups.

Nearly forty years later, one of Hollywood’s most meaningful attempts to portray the period of enslavement came in 1977 with the television blockbuster mini-series, Roots. Based on Alex Haley’s 1976 best-selling book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, the mini-series was groundbreaking on many levels. It was a dramatic series with a predominantly African American ensemble that captured a record 37 Emmy nominations — television’s highest artistic award.

Hattie McDaniel publicity photo Promotional photograph of actor Hattie McDaniel (1939).

And Roots marked the first time America witnessed slavery portrayed in detail. Along with the scenes of transporting, selling, and trading men and women, were scenes showing the brutality African Americans often suffered at the hands of slave owners. The depictions of abuse and cruelty were limited, of course, by the medium and by what American society would accept at the time. In keeping with the series’ marketing campaign, the show focused heavily on the family’s ultimate triumphs. For all of Roots’ firsts, and there were many, it was ultimately a story of resiliency.

Fast forward three-plus decades — American society is undeniably changed. African Americans are regularly featured in movies and television shows. The nation elected, then re-elected, an African American president, Barack Obama.

Drawing critical acclaim today is the movie 12 Years a Slave. 12 Years is a watershed moment in filmmaking. Not only does it feature remarkable performances, excellent cinematography, and powerful direction; it also offers the first realistic depiction of enslavement.

Unlike prior motion pictures and television shows, 12 Years does not retreat from the brutality many blacks endured. The movie is not for the faint hearted, as the violence and cruelty it portrays is not the highly stylized violence found in films like Django Unchained.  12 Years is true to the reality that for years many Americans treated fellow human beings with ruthless brutality — and that reality is harder to face.

12 Years a Slave movie poster

The film, however, is not only drawing praise from critics — it recently received nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture — but enjoying audience appreciation, as well. With that appreciation comes an opportunity to bring the discussion of slavery to the mainstream.

This, then, is an exciting time for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Among its many virtues, the Smithsonian is a great legitimizer with a long tradition of providing venues for Americans to examine their shared history. One of the over-arching goals of the National Museum of African American History and Culture is to create a place where issues like enslavement can be viewed through an unvarnished lens.

America today needs this discussion and I believe it is ready for it, a sentiment undergirded by a belief in the public’s ability to deal with and care about the issue. The great strength of history, and African American history, is its ability to draw inspiration from even the worst of times. No doubt people throughout the nation and around the world will find that inspiration when they visit the Museum and view our major exhibition on “Slavery and Freedom” when our doors open in late 2015.

Before I close, I want to recommend four insightful narratives written by African Americans during this period of American history. The first is Solomon Northup’s book, 12 Years a Slave. Next is Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs. One of the first books to describe the sexual abuse and torment that female slaves endured, Incidents became one of the most influential works of its time. Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, by Harriet Wilson, is believed to be the first novel published by an African American in North America. Though fictionalized, Wilson’s book is based on her life growing up in indentured servitude in New Hampshire. Finally, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, remains today one of the most important autobiographical works ever written by an American.

12 Years a Slave book cover 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup. 1853. Incidents book cover Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. 1861. Our Nig book cover Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black by Harriet Wilson. 1859. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass book cover Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, An American Slave by Frederick Douglass. 1845.

 

 dd-enews-temp-lonnie-bunch-2.jpg All the best, Lonnie Bunch Director

P.S. We can only reach our $250 million goal with your help. I hope you will consider making a donation or becoming a Charter Member today.