Message from Jason (July 2014)

Dear friends,

Each July it is impossible to write an intro letter without talking about one of the most important speeches in history. On July 5, 1852 Frederick Douglass gave a speech titled, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Frederick Douglass was a Black abolitionist who had escaped slavery and fought for the end of chattel slavery. Frederick Douglass organized with Black leaders and white leaders. He believed in many strategies for ending slavery, not restricted to only nonviolent means. It is important to hear his words 162 years later as as we ask, “What to the Prisoner is the Fourth of July?”

The following paragraph comes from Frederick Douglass’ speech. As you read it I want you to imagine he is speaking today. Can you hear the similarities between slavery and the US prison system? Can you hear his words speaking to you? How does your experience as a prisoner effect your understanding of the Fourth of July? How does your identity as a Black person, Latino/a person, Indigenous person, white person, Asian person, Arab person, or any other racial identity, affect how you hear these words? Frederick Douglass’ words helped shape a generation of freedom fighters. What impact do you think his words can have today?

“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. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view.”

I was recently listening to an interview with someone who wrote a history book about the American Revolution. He talked about how the creation of what we now call the United States of America was founded on slavery. I learned that the British government, who controlled the US before the revolution, was beginning to outlaw slavery. Africans who were held in slavery began to align with the British government. There were already many, many slave revolts happening throughout the country. The white land owning colonists needed to make sure they held on to their power. They wanted to keep slavery going to have free labor. They wanted to continue controlling the land stolen from the Indigenous people. The Declaration of Independence is a document that celebrated white man land ownership. It was about keeping Black people in slavery. It was about continuing to steal land. So, what to the slave, the prisoner, to poor people, to Indigenous people is the Fourth of July?

Each Fourth of July I think about how incarceration is working in the United States. I think about how punishment controls the lives of many people, particularly poor people, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities. I try to imagine what a real revolution looks like that is directed by those who are most harmed by the systems of violence going on around us. I try to imagine what a real Declaration of Independence would look like. I wonder if rather than Independence we can fight together to recognize our interdependence. We all depend on one another to survive, to take care of our world, to nurture one another when we have been harmed, to hold each other accountable when we have harmed others. Each Fourth of July I like to imagine how things can be different. As Black and Pink continues to grow, as chapters expand on the inside and the outside of prison walls, as we continue to fight for each other and tell stories I wonder what our role is in the larger movement. What do you think?

So as we think, what to the prisoner is the fourth of July, let us do so remembering that once there were no prisons, that day will come again.

In loving solidarity,


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