Thursday, July 07, 2011

What to a Felon is the Fourth of July?

Article first published as What to a Felon is the Fourth of July? on Blogcritics.

One hundred and fifty-nine years ago, Frederick Douglass was invited to give a speech to commemorate the birth of what was then a very young nation. He challenged his listeners to consider the obvious hypocrisy of a nation founded on liberty, but built on the stolen labor of enslaved Africans with the question, "What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?" Early in the speech he makes the point that this holiday does not embrace the lived experience of people like himself:

"I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine."

Reading the new book by scholar-prophet Michelle Alexander, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" got me wondering what Douglass would say today about the Fourth of July. In the book, Alexander advances a compelling thesis that the mass-incarceration of the black, the brown, and the red in America constitutes the latest version of an ever-mutating system of racialized social control, perpetuating a racial caste system; the new Jim Crow.

I suspect that Douglass would say what he said over a century and a half ago:

"Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them."

I think he would challenge us to ponder the paradox of a nation founded on liberty, but which condemns men and women to civic death and internal exile on a daily basis once they are labeled "felons". I think he would ask us to consider the question, "What to a Felon is the Fourth of July?" What does this holiday mean for those who cannot vote, cannot work, cannot find a place to live, cannot access public assistance? What does this holiday mean for the families whose loved ones cycle in and out prison year after year and who face eviction if they offer their husband, brother, uncle a place to sleep? What does it mean for communities devastated by a misguided and cynical "drug war" with a near insatiable appetite for the black, the brown and the red? A war that is more about preserving the power of politicians than public safety.

I also think that as he did in his day, he would call out faith communities on their complicity in this injustice. Today he would demand to know where the mosques, temples, Baha'i Centers, and churches are in addressing what is among the most urgent civil rights issues of the early 21st century. Baha'u'llah, Founder of the Baha'i Faith and a contemporary of Frederick Douglass put it this way:

"If ye stay not the hand of the oppressor, if ye fail to safeguard the rights of the down-trodden, what right have ye then to vaunt yourselves among men? What is it of which ye can rightly boast?"

Michelle Alexander argues that nothing short of a massive social movement can dismantle the new Jim Crow. Just as they did during efforts to defeat earlier versions of racial caste in America, faith communities must contribute prophetic vision, prophetic voices, and what Ghandi referred to as "soul force" to this new struggle. I'll close with the words of Frederick Douglass, still poignant after all these years:

"THAT HOUR WILL, COME, to each, to all,
And from his prison-house, the thrall
Go forth.

Until that year, day, hour, arrive,
With head, and heart, and hand I’ll strive,
To break the rod, and rend the gyve,
The spoiler of his prey deprive-
So witness Heaven!
And never from my chosen post,
Whate’er the peril or the cost,
Be driven."


  1. Dear Philippe, thank you for this review. The consciousness manifested by Michelle Alexander’s book feels right. I wish it didn’t seem that she were one lone voice crying in the wind – the fact that America has created a justice system that produces an underclass of throwaway humans based on the construct of laws and how they are enforced makes me sad and angry.

    In America, there is no equity in how law enforcement polices bad behavior.

    In America there is little to no “rehabilitation” for the mentally ill or the addict who commits a “crime”.

    It is discouraging when even the faith-based communities have not cooperatively embraced the opportunity to serve this mass of predominately black and brown men by assisting them with integrating back into society in healthy, sustainable ways.

    As a mother of a son who has been incarcerated for “stupid stuff” this issue hits home for me – my son is now classified as a felon and he will face all the hurdles you list when he attempts, once again, to create a life for himself and his child while also struggling to maintain his sobriety.

    Why as a people do we fashion ways to craft “the other” – over and over and over again?

  2. Dear Phillipe, if one were to start reading something by Frederick Douglass, where would one start? There are a lot of books by him. Thank you!


  3. Leila, I would start with My Bondage and My Freedom his second autobiography. I'm actually reading a collection of his speeches and letters right now and enjoy that as well.