This sermon was offered online on July 5, 2020 as part of the Poor People’s Campaign: National Call for Moral Revival and Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference #WhattotheSlave Initiative. Click here for the Poor People’s Campaign Moral Justice Jubilee Policy Platform.
by Lisa Sharon Harper
When I was a child, Frederick Douglass was an icon. He did one thing in his life, according to my teachers, he helped free the slaves. It was simple. In like manner the 4th of July was simple. Strewn with flags hanging from doorposts like the lamb’s blood washed over the door posts of the Hebrews in Egypt, our American ritual was every bit as symbolic as the Hebrews’ Passover. Rather than bitter herbs and Matza bread, Americans marked commemoration of their Exodus from captivity by consuming potato salad and hot dogs with relish.
There were parks. There were fireworks. There was family. There was fun. There were daughters on daddies’ shoulders. There was celebration of freedom from the oppressive rule of colonizers. With ancestors that fought in every American war, including the Revolution, my Black family tried to make it simple. We waved flags and licked ice cream cones and sat under the fireworks in longing for the myth of American freedom to be realized.
But, Frederick Douglass was not simple. On a hot July day in 1852, Douglass fought back the “quailing sensation,” as he put it, coursing through his body as he held the podium in Corinthian Hall in Rochester, NY; about to speak for the annual 4th of July celebration of the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Association. Splayed before him were American luminaries including leading abolitionists, legislators and the President of the United States. The Association had invited him to speak on the 4th. He refused. He examined his notes and lifted his head to the audience on July 5th and found his voice. He proceeded to explain to the August gathering why the 4th of July is not his holiday.
There is a disruptive question beyond the ritual, beyond the traditional narrative: But what is the truth? When a genocidal slavocracy establishes a holiday that celebrates freedom, narrative is doing dirty work.
Here is the truth.
America thinks of itself in biblical terms. We are the City on a Hill (Matthew 5:14). We are the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21). We are the New Promised Land (Joshua 1:13). Its founders imagined themselves, Christians and deists, to be the adopted recipients of the promise to Abraham’s seed—to make them a great nation. From 1660 through the 1740s a series of Colonial race laws established white supremacy in every British colony. Thus, the American promise was not ours.
Four founding documents ensured the elevation and protected status of white men as full Americans and all else to some situation beneath their boots.
- Declaration of Independence
Abigail Adams pled with her husband, John, in the days before the penning of the Colonies’ Declaration of Independence: “I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.”
Yet, in the shadow of Abigail’s plea, John Adams signed onto the Declaration which proclaimed it “self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
One year later, in 1777, women lost the right to vote in the state of New York. Then, Massachusetts. Then New Hampshire. Then, in 1787, The U.S. Constitutional Convention places voting qualifications in the hands of the states. Women in all states except New Jersey lose the right to vote.
1790: The State of New Jersey grants the vote to “all free inhabitants,” including women.
1807, the year before the end of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Women lose the right to vote in New Jersey, the last state to revoke the right.
We like to think today, the exclusion of women in the Declaration of Independence was not intentional—that they used the word “men” in the universal sense; meaning “human”. They did not.
- The 3/5th Compromise
And at the very same Constitutional Convention of 1787 when white male legislators decided to put women’s voting rights in the hands of the States, they ensured the primacy of white men. In those same halls at the same time, white northerners and southerners bartered Black humanity away. They declared that: Enslaved people of African descent were equal to 3/5ths of a human being. This was the first Gerrymandering of districts.
White southern men fought to have them counted as human. Northerners didn’t want them counted at all. If Africans were recognized as human beings, then Southern states would gain representation in the People’s House. They struck the compromise. 3/5ths of each black body would be counted toward Southern congressional representation.
- The 1790 Census
Three years later, the very first Census declared enslaved Blacks were not counted as human beings at all. They were simply slaves. The nearly 60,000 free Black people were not delineated at all. They were hidden–folded in with all other free people. Blackness was to equal chattel—things, to be owned, like horses and pitchforks—nothing more; nothing less.
- The Immigration Act of 1790
That same year, that same Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1790. This foundational immigration legislation clarified the founders’ imagination of what it meant to be American. They declared that the only human beings that would have the right to become naturalized U.S. citizens were free white men. American citizenship was explicitly reserved for white men.
Why would naturalization matter to the founders? Naturalization creates citizens. Citizens have the right to vote. The vote is the most fundamental way a citizen exercises dominion in a democracy. Non-white citizens in a democracy might upset the un-natural white patriarchal order that these founders had crafted for themselves over the previous 10 years. Through this inaugural Immigration Act, our founding White fathers declared: America will be a white nation.
For another century and a half, immigrants entered the United States and fought all the way to the Supreme Court to be recognized as White. Why? Because to be white in America was to be what the Bible calls “human.” It was to have the divine right to exercise dominion on land. Who doesn’t want to be human?
The Tyranny of Whiteness
And this is what white dominion looked like in those founding years.
General George Washington had bad teeth. His solution? To wrench teeth from the mouths of the men and women he owned to create his own dentures. Why not? His plantation quartered 317 men, women and children whom he believed existed to benefit his flourishing. They grew his tobacco. They birthed and grew his free labor. They grew his teeth. They were things.
President Thomas Jefferson expanded white flourishing and indigenous genocide westward, as he groomed and serially raped his 14 year old slave, Sally Hemmings—his wife’s half-sister. Then he profited off the free labor provided by the children Sally bore.
President Andrew Jackson sniffed gold in Georgia and defied the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Cherokee Nation had sovereign rights to their ancestral lands. He removed the Cherokee from Georgia and all surrounding territories. 16,000 walked. 4000 died. Why? To make way for white flourishing; first gold, then cotton.
The timpani roll of the tyranny of Whiteness has roared in the background of the American symphony since 1776.
This is what Frederick Douglass bellowed about in Rochester, New York on July 5th 1852. The grotesque request that he, a former slave, should ride to Rochester to help them celebrate the founding of this white nationalist regime.
But, early in his treatise, Douglass noted a truth that gave him hope. America is young. At the time, America was only 76 years old.
“Seventy-six years,” Douglass said, “though a good old age for a man, is but a mere speck in the life of a nation… nations number their years by thousands… America is young…she is still in the impressible stage of her existence.”
If Douglass was right, then at the age of 244 America is still young. We are still at an impressible stage.
The heart of the American struggle beats with one disruptive question: Will we strive for the “more perfect union” that those same founders enshrined in our national project or will we be captured by their own lack of capacity to imagine a world where all might live free and flourish and have a democratic say in how we live together?
That question is at the heart of the abolitionist movement. It is at the heart of the suffragist movement. It is at the heart of the labor movement. It is at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. It is at the heart of the American Indian Movement. It is at the heart of the Farmworkers Movement. It is at the heart of Women’s Liberation Movement. It is at the heart of the Environmental Justice Movement. It is at the heart of the LGBTQ Movement. It is at the heart of the fight for universal healthcare. It is at the heart of the fight against pipelines being carved through Native American burial grounds. It is at the heart of the fight against fracking polluting Native American water and air and soil. It is at the heart of the fight for Comprehensive Immigration Reform – and against Muslim bans and Asian bashing. It is at the heart of the fight to reimagine public safety as we defund the police—an institution whose roots as slave patrols determine its fruit—George Floyd and Rekia Boyd and Tamir Rice and Jonathan Crawford and Ezell Ford and Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Sandra Bland… and… and… and…
There is hope for us.
There is still time for our struggle, Frederick Douglass would say, against the constructed primacy of the white male imagination.
There is still time for us to light up the founders’ ladder of human hierarchy—burn it to the ground—and come together in a circle of common human struggle.
There is time to determine a future for this nation rooted not in the choral halls of Europe, but rather in the bayous of Louisiana—in the only artform that is truly American—Jazz!
There is time for us to be the Jazz Nation that we truly are—a nation where the spirit of God is welcome to move against oppression and for the flourishing of all, a nation where all are made in God’s image—”male and female, God created them.” A nation where we improvise and imagine new ways of being together in the world. Free to fail, we are inspired by each other, we play, we soar and, in an amazingly counter-intuitive way, in a land with “brutality” as its middle name, we harmonize and add our riffs to the new song we write together; letting the artists and prophets point the way to our new America.
There is time for us, America. In this time of our national transition, today, on the 5th day of July, 2020, reach down into your soul. Find the courage to trust God’s Spirit—move with God in the direction of liberty and justice for all.