Frederick Douglass readings take place across Massachusetts on July 4
‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?’
Celina Colby | 7/13/2017, 6 a.m.
Last week Mass Humanities funded community readings of Frederick Douglass’s speech “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro,” in response to the Fourth of July festivities. This is the ninth year of these readings, which take place from the Berkshires to the Cape for a full week. The abridged version of the speech is divided into 53 sections, each read by a different person. Rose Sackey-Milligan, senior program director at Mass Humanities, says, “The hope is that people will reflect on the piece, not only for its strong oratorical style but on how it relates to where we are in our nation.”
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Sackey-Milligan says this year felt markedly different from other readings. At the Monday, July 3 reading across from the state house, an enormous crowd gathered. More young people were present than ever before. Supporters held “Black Lives Matter” signs. Readers spoke with a passion and projection that previous years lacked. This year more than ever, Douglass’s words resonated with the citizens of Boston.
Beyond the speech
Though most of the programming was a reading of the “Fourth of July” speech, some towns went off-script. In Worcester, Worcester Roots and Future Focus Media Cooperative hosted a scripted mock trail debating the legality of slavery under the American constitution. Testimonies from American history were interwoven with pop culture references for an engaging debate. The Friends of the Edgartown Library had their speech read by representatives from all six towns in Martha’s Vineyard, a display of unity and community.
In a time when the meaning and value of being American is daily questioned, Douglass’s words are more relevant than ever. “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? …To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity … are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.” Sackey-Milligan says equally important to the reading of Douglass’s words is the reflection thereafter. Many towns held discussions after the readings, encouraging their populations to consider what works still needs to be done.
The readings of Frederick Douglass’s speech serve not only as a reminder that the Fourth of July wasn’t a day of freedom for everybody, but also as a means for bringing our communities together. Sackey-Milligan says, “Because of our current political climate, the discontent, the fear, the angst, that feeling of connection is becoming more crucial.”