IN 1852, in Rochester, the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass delivered the most provocative Fourth of July speech in history. "What, to the American slave, is the Fourth of July?" he demanded. "I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! The Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn."
This Independence Day, with America potentially on the cusp of electing a black President and a new national conversation on race underway, we should all consider it our patriotic duty to look without flinching at those deep scars of official racism - and pause to appreciate the enormous distance America has traveled since.
When Douglass delivered his ringing - and stinging - words, 4 million Americans lived in slavery. Northern blacks were free, but subject almost everywhere to heartbreaking discrimination.
Here in New York City, African-Americans were excluded from public schools, barred from libraries and restaurants and required to cling to the outside of the city's horse-drawn omnibuses, when they were allowed on at all. Almost every state prohibited blacks from voting. In 1846, when a referendum was held to consider extending the franchise to blacks, New Yorkers voted it down by a resounding majority.
Blacks, who had been vital to the nation's founding, were systematically erased from its consciousness. African-Americans served by the thousands as soldiers in the Revolution and spearheaded the attack that won the climactic battle of Yorktown for the patriots. In early Washington, slave-labor built the great temples of democracy, the U.S. Capitol and the White House. During the Civil War, two of Frederick Douglass' sons were among the hundreds of thousands of African-Americans who fought for a nation in which they still enjoyed almost no rights at all.
Yet when Abraham Lincoln invited Douglass to the White House in 1863 - he was the first black American to enter through the front door - Americans were scandalized.
And for generations, as patriotic music played and Fourth of July fireworks burst in the air, few cared to honestly confront the rampant racial hypocrisy hidden behind the soaring and self-congratulatory oratory.
This Fourth of July can be different. Americans of every political persuasion really do have something of historical significance to ponder - and celebrate. In the land that drove Douglass to despair, an African-American has his eyes on the prize of the Oval Office.
For all the trivial chatter about how race has been slyly "inserted" into our politics this campaign season, this is the much bigger story: In a country whose freedom was built on the forced imprisonment of millions, a black man will be on the ballot in November. And he has been nominated by the party of Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson Davis, no less.
This nomination vindicates the vision of the Founding Fathers - many of them slave-holders - who would have had a coronary at the sight of the presumed Democratic nominee. Their inspired vision ultimately reached beyond their own ingrained prejudices.
Indeed, to those of us old enough to remember an America where segregation was the norm in the South, violence against blacks went unpunished and casual discrimination still went largely unremarked even in New York, the most startling response to Obama's candidacy has come from the blase young. They have grown up in an era when the promise of the civil rights movement has come to fruition, and it is commonplace to see successful African-Americans in every walk of life, from business and law to science and politics.
Not long ago I asked my 18-year-old daughter if first-time voters like herself were amazed that a black American was running for President, and might even be elected. She looked puzzled and replied, "Mostly they think it's just no big deal."
Frederick Douglass would finally feel included, and be proud.