I just got back from participating in the annual reading of Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” speech at the Inkwell. Abigail McGrath of Renaissance House organizes it; Makani Themba stage-manages. There were 30 readers this year, from first-timers to multi-year veterans, and if anything it was more powerful than ever. This was my portion:
I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery — the great sin and shame of America! “I will not equivocate; I will not excuse;” I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.
Please do bookmark the link and read the whole thing. Read parts of it aloud and feel the way the words flow through you, take you down into the depths and point you toward the heights visible in the distance. This part comes near the end:
Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference.
Slavery did fall, but its root system never died and the shoots it’s been sending up are more tenacious than ever. The principles for fighting it remain the same. We’re on it.
I’ve often wondered why Frederick Douglass gave his great Fourth of July speech on the Fifth of July. This morning the answer was delivered to Kore, my laptop, courtesy of The Atlantic: “When the Fourth of July Was a Black Holiday,” by Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts. Before the Civil War, they write, July 4th was like a national holy day, but it was celebrated almost entirely by whites: “Black Americans demonstrated considerably less enthusiasm. And those who did observe the holiday preferred—like Douglass—to do so on July 5 to better accentuate the difference between the high promises of the Fourth and the low realities of life for African Americans, while also avoiding confrontations with drunken white revelers.”
After the Civil War, however, Confederate sympathizers in the South were not into celebrating, but African Americans “embraced the Fourth like never before. From Washington, D.C., to Mobile, Alabama, they gathered together to watch fireworks and listen to orators recite the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of Independence, and the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery when it was ratified in late 1865.”
As Jim Crow took hold, the southern whites reclaimed their holiday and pushed the black people out of public spaces and into their homes, cultural institutions, and churches. Up went the statues of Confederate heroes. “Dixie” was sung on the Fourth, along with “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts are the authors of the new book Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy, which the New York Times and quite a few others have called a must-read.
There was no group photo of the Inkwell reading this year, but here’s last year’s.