Hurricane Arthur, first of the season, dealt us a glancing blow on Friday. In anticipation, most July 4th activities, including the big parade in Edgartown, were postponed till Saturday. So my 4th of July actually took place on the 3rd, 5th, and 6th, but that made for a pretty clunky headine: “Best 3rd, 5th, and 6th of July Ever”? I don’t think so.
The 4th of July has never been my holiday. Chalk it up to coming of age during the Vietnam War, and being born six years after World War II ended. My father served in World War II. He rarely talked about it. He didn’t use his military service as a club to hit others over the head with. After I read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 for the first time, probably when I was still in high school or not long after, my father said that of all the WWII books he’d read, Catch-22 best described his wartime experience.
I’ve got great respect for the “founding fathers.” Flawed they were, but they were visionaries, and they were out there, thinking, taking risks, leading. I suspect many of them would be bemused or worse by the religion that “patriotism” has become. Or perhaps not.
So this year, after decades of not flying, saluting, or pledging allegiance to the flag; of sticking flag stamps on my envelopes upside down; of trying to live with, understand, and shape my undeniable Americanness, I finally got seduced into celebrating the 4th of July.
Through the usual combination of coincidences and connections, I was asked to participate in a reading of Frederick Douglass’s 4th of July speech from 1852, “What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?”
I found it online and read it all the way through. I don’t think I’d ever done that before. Then I read it out loud all the way through.
Wow wow wow.
This is one amazing speech. Talk about “speaking truth to power.” Douglass was invited to speak by white people, he was speaking to mostly white people, and he pulled no punches about slavery, the excuses made for slavery, and the undeniable hypocrisy of slavery for anyone who professed to believe in the Declaration of Independence or Christian teachings.
From the platform at Corinthian Hall, Rochester, New York, he refused his listeners the complacency and comfort and self-congratulation that they were probably seeking. Of July 4, 1776, he said:
To say now that America was right, and England wrong, is exceedingly easy. Everybody can say it; the dastard, not less than the noble brave, can flippantly discant on the tyranny of England towards the American Colonies. It is fashionable to do so; but there was a time when, to pronounce against England, and in favor of the cause of the colonies, tried men’s souls. They who did so were accounted in their day plotters of mischief, agitators and rebels, dangerous men. To side with the right against the wrong, with the weak against the strong, and with the oppressed against the oppressor! here lies the merit, and the one which, of all others, seems unfashionable in our day. The cause of liberty may be stabbed by the men who glory in the deeds of your fathers.
We read it twice, first in the studios of MVTV, the local public-access station, on July 3rd. I’d never read off a teleprompter before, but I managed.
My part came in the middle, where Douglass challenged those among his listeners who thought the abolitionists were hurting their own cause by “denouncing” and “rebuking” too much, instead of trying to persuade the unpersuaded. (Sound familiar?) To them, he said: “But, I submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued.” Slaveholders and their supporters already know that the slaves are human beings.
The manhood of the slave is conceded. It is admitted in the fact that Southern statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write. When you can point to any such laws in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave.
The second reading was at the Inkwell beach in Oak Bluffs. Scheduled for July 4th, it was postponed to the 5th by Arthur. The 5th could not have been a more perfect day. We 20 or so readers, black and white, male and female, stood on the sand against a backdrop of blue sea and blue sky. Abigail McGrath of Renaissance House, a retreat for writers and artists in Oak Bluffs and sponsor of the Douglass reading, introduced the speech. (I’m just to the right of the microphone, script in hand.)
Each of us had entered the TV studio alone, and addressed only the teleprompter. Now we could see the audience, and each other.
On Sunday, the U.S. Slave Song Project‘s Spirituals Choir, in which I sing, performed for at Lola’s, a restaurant that specializes in southern seafood, live music, and Sunday brunch — which we got to enjoy when we were done. To sing the slave songs with Frederick Douglass’s Fourth of July speech so fresh in my mind — this capped my best Fourth of July weekend ever. This Fourth wasn’t about complacency and self-congratulation. It was about memory and challenge, and about sharing the day(s) with others.