In 1852, Frederick Douglass declined to address a Fourth of July celebration. On July 5th he explained why, in one of the greatest speeches of all time: “What to the Slave Is Your Fourth of July?”
That speech sparked a change in my relationship to the Fourth of July. Coming of political age during the Vietnam War, I did not love “America.” I saw little to celebrate on the Fourth besides hypocrisy. Then, in 2014, I was invited to participate in an annual group reading of Douglass’s speech, a tradition that already went back at least a decade. In preparation I read the speech all the way through for almost certainly the first time in my life.
As I wrote in this blog at the time: “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.”
I’ve participated every year since, except for the one year it didn’t happen, in what is fondly known as “the Speech on the Beach” because it usually happens at the Inkwell beach in Oak Bluffs. Last year, thanks to Covid-19, it was virtual: each reader taped his or her own segment and they were stitched painstakingly into a whole. It was a little ragged, but it worked. The power of the words came through.
This year it was again virtual, but with a couple of big differences. Most of the video was handled by a pro, Michelle Vivian-Jemison, and so was the editing. This version is shorter then in previous years — it runs about 25 minutes — but it captures much of the original’s power. (Nevertheless, please read or reread, listen or relisten to, the whole thing at your earliest possible convenience.) The cast was larger than in previous years, but once again producers Abby McGrath and Makani Themba pulled it off: Out of Many, One.
What started with participating in the reading of Douglass’s “What to the Slave Is Your Fourth of July?” has continued in the years since November 2016. The Fourth of July has come to mean more than a celebration of off-the-rack patriotism. The vision of the founders was limited by the world they were grounded in, but at the same time that vision was expansive and expandable. What it’s taken me a few decades to get is that it’s up to us in every generation to do the expanding.
Douglass himself got it. After staring slavery in the face for an hour — for his whole life — he says this:
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.
“Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other as they did ages ago” — and neither do individuals. I too am “cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age,” some of them, even while I’m infuriated and disheartened by others. And I too manage most of the time to draw “encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions.” Seeing them under attack by forces that Douglass would surely recognize has made me — almost — patriotic.
Here’s the 2021 Vineyard rendition of Douglass’s speech (abridged):