Frederick Douglass, from 1852 to 2020

So many annual summer events have been cancelled due to COVID-19’s imperative to avoid large crowds. Way back in March I wondered if the annual July 4 reading of Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech would be a casualty of the pandemic.

Frederick Douglass

Informally dubbed “Speech on the Beach,” the reading takes place at the Inkwell in Oak Bluffs and has been happening for some 16 years. My first participation, in 2014, might have marked the first time in my life that I really celebrated the Fourth of July. I blogged about it in 2014 in “Best 4th of July Ever,” and again in 2018, in “Channeling Frederick Douglass.” A year and a half into the Trump administration, Douglass’s challenge to the country was more relevant than ever, and as for this year, 2020? After three and a half years of Trump, racism is more virulent and more lethal than ever, and it’s crystal-clear that Trump and the Republican Party don’t believe that the country belongs to all the people.

Frederick Douglass’s Fourth of July speech, first given on July 5, 1852, is more crucial than ever, and thanks to visionary sponsor Abigail McGrath, producer Makani Themba, video wizard Michelle Vivian of MVTV, and a cast of dozens, it happened again.

On video. As usual, each participant was assigned a portion of the speech. Not as usual, we had to video ourselves and submit the file to Michelle, who would wrangle all the parts into a cohesive whole. A daunting challenge for sure.

In her introduction to the video, Abby McGrath talks about how true art changes you, and why Douglass’s speech is true art: “After you’ve heard it, your mind opens up, and you see things that you hadn’t seen before.” That’s what happened to me the first time I heard it, the first time I participated in reading it, and every time since that I’ve had the opportunity to read Douglass’s glorious, challenging words.

In her intro, Makani takes us back to July 5, 1852, when Douglass delivered the speech to a mostly white audience in Corinthian Hall, Rochester, New York. She evokes the present, of Black Lives Matter supporters rallying, marching, working for change. Then she ties the two together with Douglass’s own words: “Men talk of the Negro problem. There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their Constitution.”

What he said. The original speech was close to three hours long. This abridgment is less than one hour, including those introductory remarks. I miss the live reading at the Inkwell, but I love seeing the faces of all my sister and brother readers close up and glimpsing the spaces they’re reading in. Now listen. See what you see, hear what you hear.

 

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going. She also manages the blogsite for the Women's Committee of We Stand Together / Estamos Todos Juntos, a civic engagement group on Martha's Vineyard.
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