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Nobody Doubts It: Our Perennial Return to Frederick Douglass’ Soaring Rhetoric

James Peterson

One of the unmitigatedly Black customs of America’s July 4 celebration has become the intentional circulation of Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” speech. It is a custom that was ‘woke’ before the term became a political football for right-wing provocateurs hellbent on extending the culture wars in perpetuity. Circulating the speech amongst Black social networks has been a ritual rite of passage for those sending and receiving the speech. It is a profound signal, a call to remind our communities that freedom and liberation are distinct concepts, both of which are more accurately defined as processes imbued with an enduring struggle, that for Black folks has shaped the substance of their existence in these sometimes, United States of America.

On July 5, 1852, during an event commemorating the Declaration of Independence. Douglass highlighted the hypocrisy of a nation celebrating freedom and independence while millions of African Americans remained enslaved. He contrasts the joyous celebrations of white Americans with the continued suffering and injustice faced by enslaved people, condemning the United States for its failure to live up to the principles of liberty and equality enshrined in its founding documents. Douglass called for immediate action to abolish slavery and urged his audience to confront the moral and political contradictions of American society.

Dr. James B. PetersonDr. James B. PetersonBut this year, the speech should hit different(ly). We return to Douglass’ exceptional rhetoric amid a crisis in the 2024 presidential election cycle. The incumbent president availed himself poorly in the first presidential debate and the Republican challenger is a former president whose relationship with the truth was nearly non-existent in the same debate. There can be no debate about the fact that true rhetorical mastery is absent from our presidential politics, given the candidates at the helm of last week’s disappointing and, for some, debilitating debate. In this context, Douglass’s 172-year-old speech is a beacon for those of us who believe that the ability to be accurate and persuasive (via rhetoric) is a cornerstone ability for any presidential candidate. Both sides are lacking in this regard.

In “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” Douglass’ charge is herculean – to write and deliver a speech to a mostly abolitionist audience (of white women) in order to persuade the multitude beyond the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society in Rochester, New York, of the evils of slavery and the impossibility of honoring the founding principles of America under the cloak of brutality and bondage that the Peculiar Institution legally mandated.

The speech's value in the current political moment lies in its enduring call for justice and equality. It is a reminder of the ongoing struggles against racial injustice and systemic inequality. With a rogue, right-wing Supreme Court at the helm of the American judiciary (and more recently the powers of the presidency itself), debates over civil rights, police brutality, reproductive rights, the capacity of federal regulation, and the possibility for racial equity will continue to be a central feature of our public discourse. In this context, Douglass' words resonate as a powerful critique of complacency and a call to action. The speech challenges contemporary audiences to reflect on the deadly dissonance between American ideals and the real politick required to work toward a more just and inclusive society.

At a critical point in the speech, Douglass rhetorically posits the following: “What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it” [my emphasis].

This year, for Independence Day, it is urgent that people read/reread the words of Frederick Douglass on this occasion in 1852 – at the precipice of America’s Civil War. The speech is a rhetorical masterpiece. It reminds composition instructors of all of the reasons why they instruct young writers to avoid rhetorical questions. “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” is a masterclass in the deployment of rhetorical questions – some answered and others not. But Douglass’ technique underwrites the rhetorical force of questions asked (in speeches and/or in writing) that are so profound, so searingly incisive, that they actually require no answer from the speaker because the audience knows the answers. Nobody doubts it.

We may not now be on the precipice of another civil war, but as a nation, we do sit at a non-rhetorical crossroads. Should President Biden relinquish his incumbent campaign to a younger more rhetorically gifted Democratic leader? How has former President Trump once again become the Republican nominee, given his legal woes, his financial liabilities, and his disdain for democracy itself? And what do these questions matter in the face of a Supreme Court over-wrought with right-wing political activist judges committed to a Scalian sense of originalism designed to extract power from the people and deliver into the hands of an oligarchal autocracy?

Questions like these are not rhetorical. And there are no simple or conventionally agreed-upon answers. They present existential challenges to the American democratic experiment. The truth of the matter is that America is a deeply divided nation. Some of us still believe in an inclusive democracy where women and people of color are equitable citizens; where women have freedom over their own bodies; where immigrants cannot be inherently illegal; where the justice system has the same set of rules for everyone as it does for the wealthy elite and/or political classes; and where those descended from enslaved Africans in this nation are owed reparations. Some of us believe in the possibility of America as a beacon for democracy. Some of us do not. Nobody doubts this.

Dr. James B. Peterson is founder of Hip Hop Scholars, an organization devoted to developing the educational potential of Hip Hop. He is the author of Hip Hop Headphones: A Scholar's Critical Playlist.

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