Perspectives: Frederick Douglass, not all holidays are what we think they are

Composite image, St. George News

OPINION – One of the greatest perks of my work is found in the company I keep. This isn’t to brag or to imply that my workplace is better than yours. It’s simply an acknowledgement that I’m blessed to encounter a number of genuinely insightful, freedom-minded people along the way.

One of those individuals is a young law student named Nole who works as our office manager.

As we were preparing to celebrate Independence Day last week, Nole shared with me some illuminating excerpts from “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.”

As a former slave, Douglass had a number of piercing observations regarding what holidays were really about. They definitely made me take a deeper look at how we celebrate holidays and what we might learn from his wisdom.

Douglass wrote of how the days between Christmas and New Years were considered as holidays and the slaves were excused from their labors, except to feed and care for livestock. They were allowed to use or abuse their time, according to the grace of their masters, as they saw fit.

He wrote of how the biggest part of that time was spent in games and merriments such as playing ball, running foot-races, wrestling, fiddling, dancing and drinking whisky. Interestingly, a slave who chose to work during the holidays, rather than playing and getting drunk, was seen as an ungrateful disgrace.

Slaves were actively encouraged to have ample whisky to get them through the holidays and the slaveholders would place bets on which slave could drink the most without getting drunk. This way, Douglass wrote, whole multitudes could be induced to drink to excess.

The larger purpose served by allowing slaves to observe these holidays was not based in some noble human gesture on the part of their master. It was there to give them the illusion of having temporary freedom.

Douglass explained:

Were the slaveholders at once to abandon this practice, I have not the slightest doubt it would lead to an immediate insurrection among the slaves. These holidays serve as conductors, or safety-valves, to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity.

The encouragement to engage in excessive drinking and revelry served an even more sinister purpose. It taught them to be disgusted with what was portrayed as freedom.

By encouraging the slaves to abuse the tiny measure of freedom that was afforded them, they embraced their slavery with even greater vigor at the end of their holiday celebration.

Douglass wrote:

Thus, when the slave asks for virtuous freedom, the cunning slaveholder, knowing his ignorance, cheats him with a dose of vicious dissipation, artfully labelled with the name of liberty.

So, when the holidays ended, we staggered up from the filth of our wallowing, took a long breath, and marched to the field, — feeling, upon the whole, rather glad to go, from what our master had deceived us into a belief was freedom, back to the arms of slavery.

As I read these excerpts, I couldn’t help but think about the parallels that could be drawn to the way we celebrate holidays in our time.

Granted, we are not in bondage physically—as chattel slaves. However, looking at the way we approach holidays like Independence Day, the case can be made that we have embraced a type of mental slavery instead.

We proudly display the red, white and blue. We barbecue and play and drink to our hearts content. We cheer and turn millions of dollars into noise and smoke via fireworks displays.

And when the holiday is over, we go back to whatever we were doing before with no deeper sense whatsoever of what we just celebrated. Authentic freedom and a sincere appreciation of what it means have taken a backseat to noisy outward displays of excess.

This wasn’t always the case.

John Adams, writing to his wife Abigail, noted that the anniversary of our independence was worthy of celebration by succeeding generations. Note how he envisioned the forms that celebration might take:

It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

The raucous part of liberty, we’re very eager to celebrate. The virtuous part that requires a sense of humility and gratitude, is no longer in fashion.

In many ways, our holidays are becoming little more than the pressure valve Frederick Douglass referred to that kept the slave population safely distracted.

The rebellious, yet moral, stand taken by the founders to secure their freedom was based on principles that are still at stake today. One day, we may have another holiday worth celebrating properly.

Bryan Hyde is an opinion columnist specializing in current events viewed through the lens of common sense. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.

Email: bryanh@stgnews.com

Twitter: @youcancallmebry

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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5 Comments

  • desertgirl July 10, 2017 at 7:58 am

    The raucous part of liberty, we’re very eager to celebrate. The virtuous part that requires a sense of humility and gratitude, is no longer in fashion.
    This statement sums up the general mindset of the American people at this time.

    Great opinion post and in my opinion, spot on.

  • Brian July 10, 2017 at 10:53 am

    Very thought provoking. I didn’t know that history about slavery and holidays. It sounds like they used it in much the same way the Soviet Union used cheap vodka.

  • Baldwin July 10, 2017 at 9:08 pm

    I learned love of country or patriotism on the fourth of July in our Parade and Program in Minersville. This year I saw my great nephew gain that same feeling as he was singing with a group of other young people for the same program. His feelings of humility and love were obvious. Some are still doing it right. Some are still honoring those who lived and died for our freedom.

  • commonsense July 10, 2017 at 10:10 pm

    Had the Africans taken by slave traders and sold to American colonists been left in West Africa what would their lives be like now. In that part of Africa, the standard of living is pretty much third world. The opportunity afforded Blacks under affirmative action would not exist. The economic ceiling would be much lower. Disease and malnutrition would be greater.

    I don’t like that today’s Blacks accept the role of victims. Slavery has been gone for five generations. They are in America with great opportunities. Theirs leaders have failed to instill a sense of appreciation. Michelle Obama whined about this country. Maxine Waters, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are poor role models. Urban Blacks are killing each other at record frequency.

    Even having a Black president didn’t quell the militant rhetoric. In fact, it fueled it. Where is MLK when we need him? When will blacks really accept the responsibility of full equality?

  • commonsense July 11, 2017 at 3:11 pm

    Had the Africans taken by slave traders and sold to American colonists been left in West Africa what would their lives be like now. In that part of Africa, the standard of living is pretty much third world. The opportunity afforded Blacks under affirmative action in Africa would not exist. The economic ceiling would be much lower. Disease and malnutrition would be greater.

    I don’t like that today’s Blacks accept the role of victims. Slavery has been gone for five generations. They are in America with great opportunities. Theirs leaders have failed to instill a sense of appreciation. Michelle Obama whined about this country. Maxine Waters, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are poor role models. Urban Blacks are killing each other at record frequency.

    Even having a Black president didn’t quell the militant rhetoric. In fact, it fueled it. Where is MLK when we need him? When will blacks really accept the responsibility of full equality?

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