Fredrick Douglass, George Wallace, and The Apotheosis of Washington

Thoughts on Independence Day 2020

Just re-read Frederick Douglass’ speech about the Fourth of July, written when the country was a mere 76 years old.

He describes what the celebration of
American Independence “meant” to slaves, especially in light of the Fugitive Slave laws. Much of what he talks about can still be heard echoing, starting with actions taken after emancipation: deliberately depriving African Americans of jobs, education, housing — Jim Crow — denial of GI benefits, redlining of neighborhoods … all of which contributed to what is now called white privilege.

Most middle class and poor white people would say they have not been actively complicit in this, feeling generally powerless against big money and big business, (although I can remember feuding neighbors declaring revenge on each other by threatening to sell their homes to black families) however, that does not mean we were not the beneficiaries of the results.

The ongoing harm is not because of some one-time, “ancient history,” that no longer affects current society, but has been reinforced over and over in attitude and policy to the present day.

We forget that George Wallace declared “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” not 150 years ago, but in the 60s — with lots of people still alive who listened, believed him, and support his ideas today.

Segregation. Government support and enforcement of a divided populace. Officially outlawed. But segregation/division is still present, even in the famed halls of American justice. So one must ask, “Who benefits by keeping American citizens in this state? Who has continued to earn, succeed and increase their wealth no matter what is happening in American society?” The more “us vs. them” talk I hear, the more I realize how threatened this very small group of rich and powerful people must feel — to the point that they present to us that their own survival is vital to the survival of the United States.

Therefore they push the idea that one group must be victorious over another group — inflaming fear of “the other.” This is very evident by the need to categorize people into groups by race, political party, religion, socioeconomic status, and by using pejorative names and descriptions. We are now experiencing what this begets: violence and destruction, as well declarations of “time for another Civil War.” Look around the world and see what civil wars are doing. Count how many years countries have been torn apart, how many millions of people displaced. Who could possibly benefit from that happening here?

The founders of the US were not gods, but imperfect humans, who, at times, acted solely in their own interests. Yet, they ultimately risked death by committing treason against England to form a new nation. To this new nation they brought both lofty ideals, and embedded Eurocentric classism and racism; which could not help but influence all they did.

Eventually, they would hash out their new form of government that promised to pass power peacefully, provide citizens with a system of legal redress, a process to introduce or change laws, and the right to hold their government accountable to the people. However, despite writing of “unalienable rights” we have yet to assure those rights on an equal basis. In fact, American society deliberately put up barriers to prevent those rights from being enjoyed unilaterally.

By raising the founders and subsequent leaders of the United States to deity status, as openly shown in The Apotheosis of Washington, an incorrect and incomplete historical narrative has been passed along. This refusal to recognize mistakes, flaws, and biases in those who led this country — and worse, to let their mistakes stand — is at the very heart of where we find ourselves at this moment.

We need to recognize that the United States, not unlike many of the countries that currently exist around the globe today, has a complicated, sometimes cruel and violent past. Instead of trying to bandage it over, we need to open the wound, treat the infection, and allow true healing to occur.

With our own Civil War as a painful reminder of how quickly a country can splinter and how long the damage remains in a torn nation’s bloodstream, we, all of us, have a duty to resist the self-centered voices that seek to keep us divided: but rather find the ways to take the necessary steps to heal, improve, and unite. The best tool we have to accomplish this, even with all its flaws, is to consistently and vigorously, exercise our right to vote.

It is also our duty as a nation to constantly, and honestly, review our historical narrative (including painful issues), redefine our perception of “being American,” and what that means both nationally and globally, work together for the greater good, and constantly ask ourselves if the United States is truly living up to the vision and ideals it was founded on. We must ask no less of our leaders, and ourselves.

“No republic is safe that tolerates a privileged class, or denies to any of its citizens equal rights and equal means to maintain them.” Frederick Douglass, 1866

Originally published in a shorter version at



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Noreen Braman

Noreen Braman is the author of “Treading Water,” and is a keynote speaker & workshop facilitator.