Douglass’ speech should be in school libraries

Did you know that Indiana schools are required to keep a copy of Frederick Douglass’ speech “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?” in their school libraries? I wonder how many schools actually do this. And how many Hoosier teachers assign their students to read or hear Douglass’ powerful words.

The speech, delivered 169 years ago today, is one of 15 “protected writings, documents and records of American history or heritage” identified in Indiana law. The expected documents are on the list: the U.S. and Indiana constitutions, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, etc. But it also includes Douglass’ speech, Chief Seattle’s letter to a U.S. president (which may be apocryphal) and abolitionist David Walker’s “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World.”

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass (National Park Service image).

Indiana Code 20-30-5-3 says teachers and school officials may post and read from these documents without fear of censorship. It says students have a right to study them and cite them in their schoolwork. And it says school libraries or media centers “must contain in the facility’s permanent collection at least one copy of each writing or document” on the list.

Surprisingly, the requirement for possessing the documents applies not only to public and charter schools but to private schools that accept state-funded tuition vouchers. (That’s in Indiana Code 20-51-4-1). For the most part, Indiana legislators have bent over backward to impose no requirements on the private, mostly religious schools that receive vouchers.

As I wrote a year ago, I didn’t learn about Douglass’ speech in school (or for a long time afterward), and I was amazed by his scorching rhetoric. Much as the New York Times’ 1619 Project centers the story of slavery in its framing of American history, Douglass turned the tables on America’s Independence Day celebration, speaking from the perspective of a slave.

“To him,” he told his audience, “your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”

Historian and Douglass biographer David Blight describes the speech as a symphony in three parts. In the first, Douglass praises the founders and congratulates the nation on its independence. In the closing, he expresses optimism that slavery will end and America’s ideals will extend to all people.

But it’s the middle section, with its bitter denunciation of American hypocrisy, that resonates. On a day when we wave flags and display our patriotism, Douglass’ words can seem shocking. They are likely to make us uncomfortable about an important part of our nation’s history. And they should.

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