Inequality is a term echoed throughout the media, but how does its evolution throughout America’s historical actions directly link its present with its past? Many Americans today can agree that racism remains a prevalent issue within society, but sometimes, the same Americans who identify intolerance are not aware of how different races play different roles in society and how these roles have affected all of the racial issues that have occurred over the course of American history, or rather, are not racially literate. To further my argument, simply identifying racism does not solve the issue, it instead divides a people via classifying and stereotyping them based on their ethnic groups. Everything I have gathered to display on this website is the result of the many lessons of race relations that I learned over the course of the semester because prior to the school year, I was not as racially literate as I am now. I had known about the basic racial and economic motivations for antebellum slavery, but I did not know about how it continued after the Emancipation Proclamation due to immensely charged prejudices within the American South. Some of the most prominent lessons I learned were pulled from the book Slavery by Another Name written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Douglas A. Blackmon, and the speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” given to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society by social reformer and renowned orator Frederick Douglass. With these lessons, I feel well-equipped to argue that America’s past facade of tolerance hindered racial equality due to American society’s unwillingness to recognize the hypocrisy in their country’s historical failures to grant African Americans real social freedom, leading me to question if America’s past obstructs it from effectively approaching the fight for equality today.
Although the Emancipation Proclamation issued on January 1, 1863 is commonly known as the point in history where African Americans were set free from the horrors of slavery, upon reading this book, I now know that this is clearly not the case. The American South could not let go of their old ways due to a number of reasons, one prominent reason being the outrage that people’s racism produced. Thus, the convict-leasing system was introduced, where African Americans would be charged with petty crimes and be forced to work their fines off in awful working conditions. Furthermore, because of how this new system of neo-slavery negated the condition of African Americans legally being people’s property, African Americans were treated worse than before because they were seen as expendable. What was intended to promote racial acceptance actually made matters worse, and while there were men like Warren Reese who tried to stop the convict-leasing system, there were simply too many people in America who stood idly by during its reign. The surfacing of the book Slavery by Another Name shows exactly how America puts on a facade in order to maintain a cleaner history of tolerance. In chapter four, Blackmon illustrates that African Americans were inspired “by the moral force of the Civil War victory and the pronouncements of evangelical uplift, self-reliance, and personal improvement offered by an army of black pastors and statesmen of abolition such as Frederick Douglass, and soon Booker T. Washington, . . . [and] were poised to assimilate fully into American society” (Blackmon 85).
As the South made life worse for African American social status instead of having them welcomed into a reformed society, racial equality became impossible to achieve. Due to the South’s unrelenting prejudice toward African Americans and the benefits of economically exploiting people for cheap labor, American society did not do enough to end the convict-leasing system. This shows that America, both in the North and South, failed to act upon granting African Americans social rights. Furthermore, Frederick Douglass, who was mentioned in Slavery by Another Name, actively plays a role in elucidating America’s hypocrisy by the vitriol in his speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” saying that abolitionists did not do enough to actually end slavery. Additionally, an example from the book that delves into the topic of the North believing in equality but not doing enough to enforce it is in chapter nine, where Northerners slowly became less invested in guilting the South at the risk of increased violence (Blackmon 243-245). On top of all this, American society today fails to include the continuation of slavery in its history textbooks. How can we grow as a society if we are not truly educated of our country’s past with racism? Is America truly tolerant if it can’t educate the people of its failure to grant African Americans social freedom? Above this analysis of “What to the Slave is the Forth of July?” is a slideshow (which can be watched via autoplay or be controlled by side arrows) consisting of four images: Washington Crossing the Delaware, Leaders of the Continental Congress, “The day we celebrate’ 1876 painting, and Christian union. These all illustrate the patriotic pride America possesses but fails to share with African Americans, whether it be on Independence Day or in places of worship to a benevolent, Christian God. Frederick Douglass was asked by the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society to speak in Rochester, New York on July 5, 1852. They expected him to give a speech about the great liberties the nation had to offer, but Douglass’ speech topic greatly deviated from their expectations.
This is because Frederick Douglass was once a slave. Although he escaped and became educated, he knew the reality and the magnitude of antebellum slavery firsthand. Because of this insulting invitation to talk about the abundance of liberties in the same nation that strips black people of their own liberties, Douglass responded unkindly on behalf of all African Americans. In the speech he gave, he utilized charged language and rhetorical devices such as metaphors and allusions to ensure that the message he conveyed about hypocrisy became engrained into the listener’s mind — and that’s why it still remains so effective today. To begin the speech, Frederick Douglass asks his audience why they have called him to speak. He also asks 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?” (Douglass 1). Here, he immediately establishes a “them” and an “us” polarization to elucidate that African Americans and Americans are not one. African Americans are ostracized for the color of their skin and Douglass cannot feign black inclusivity to appease his audience. Hypocrisy plays a key role in his phrasing of “political freedom and natural justice” because these are the ideals Americans preach but do not provide to everyone.
To further his claim, Douglass alludes to The Declaration of Independence as “that Declaration of Independence.” By using the word choice of “that” rather than “the,” he not only increases the distance between African Americans and the Declaration’s ideals of natural rights and liberty, but he also shows a feeling of contempt by disrespecting the document’s title. In addition, Douglass blatantly calls America’s fourth of July a celebration of “bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages” (Douglass 8). The hypocrisy lies in the fact that Independence Day celebrates freedom, freedom of a nation built upon the oppression of a people. The “thin veil” metaphor Douglass uses in this line illustrates the facade of tolerance America masquerades with. Its imagery gives the reader the impression of a semi-transparent cloth which from far away can be seen as beautiful and unsuspecting, but up close, the reader can imagine seeing through the cloth to reveal the detestable, ugly truth. Synthesizing what I’ve learned from Slavery by Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon and “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” by Frederick Douglass, I now know how America failed to grant African Americans real social freedom for years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The information gathered from both of these texts grant insight to large questions I had at the beginning of the semester: If African Americans were supposedly granted freedom after 1863, why didn’t they do better in America’s economy? Why are there still statistics about disparities in wealth between races? Is America really approaching the fight for equality in an effective way?
Becoming racially literate over the course of the semester has allowed me to better see why Douglass and Blackmon wrote the texts that they did. For example, after reading Slavery by Another Name and seeing the animalistic ferocity of the South, I can better see what Frederick Douglass was fighting against and why he uses the technique of charged language in his speech. Him expressing his anger toward American society for conniving slavery is astronomically relevant to how America pretends to not have prejudice against African Americans in the years following the Civil War through lackluster attempts at ending the convict-leasing system. Through this premise of abolitionists not doing enough to end neo-slavery, Slavery by Another Name gave me a deeper understanding of how forced labor persisted for so long in American society. Many years later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were enacted to prohibit racial discrimination once and for all. However, there are still numerous issues with race today, and these issues do not end with African Americans. For example, racism against whites and Asians occurs in college admissions (both UC and Harvard). Since colleges are taking students from minority groups with worse records of merit over students from privileged groups with better records of merit, this is an example of people attempting to fight racism with racism. This only separates people because it classifies someone’s ability to succeed in the future with their race; the exact principle American society should be trying to get away from. This is not how equality is obtained. This is why I believe that as long as Americans only see race and not humanity, America will forever be divided. All of these facts lead me to believe that America’s racial issues are still an unfinished narrative. Will we be the generation who finishes the ending to that narrative, or will we pass the burden onto the next?
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