A crowd of over 100 engaged listeners gathered late in the afternoon on a hot and humid July Fourth at historic Inkwell Beach in Oak Bluffs. Abigail McGrath, founder of Renaissance House Retreat for Writers and Artists, was host of the 16th reading of Frederick Douglass’ powerful landmark speech “What Does the Fourth of July Mean to the Negro?” Douglass first delivered his the speech at a convention in Rochester, N.Y., in 1852.
“People stood in the hot sun, riveted by the performances and the words. Nobody left, nobody coughed, nobody got up to take a swim. That is when you know you have your audience, that they are listening, that they are engaged, that they are absorbing something they want to hear,” McGrath said. “True art brings about change in the audience. After having heard the speech, people are different from the way they were before they heard the speech.”
McGrath told the audience that the speech was “a stand for diversity and human rights” because Douglass risked his life, knowing that he could be arrested or sent back to slavery when he gave the speech.
Marita Rivero, executive director of the Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket, said she thinks the speech still resonates today.
“I think hearing the speech is so important; it remains timely. Puts us in touch with the past and lets us understand we are part of a continuum, and we have some control over who we are going to be in the future,” Rivero said.
Makani Themba, the director, editor, and producer of the Renaissance House program on Frederick Douglass, and chief strategist at Higher Ground Change Strategies, based in Jackson, Miss., stepped up to the microphone, saying, “This is our 16th year doing this, and some of you have been reading every year, so awesome. Today, when I think of this speech I think of possibility, because there are all kinds of things that people could have told him [Frederick Douglass] he cannot do. If these folks can do what they did in 1852, we can do anything right now.”
Later, she spoke about the significance of Inkwell Beach as well: “The Inkwell is a treasured historical site of African American history. It is revered the world over as a place where black culture is nurtured and preserved. It is featured in the National Museum of African American History, among other places. We wanted to affirm the incredible legacy and importance of Inkwell Beach,” Themba said.
She said the overall message of the speech speaks to the contradiction of celebrating freedom and independence while America enslaved millions of African descendants under a brutal system. Douglass spoke of the complicity of government, churches, and businesses in perpetuating this system, and ends with a vision of a better America that rises to fulfill its promise of liberty for all.
McGrath said there are questions that come from the speech that are still waiting to be answered.
“The question which rises from the speech is, Just how free are black Americans today?” McGrath said. “The part when he talks about the differences in punishment between blacks and whites doing the same crime? Black Lives Matter has been trying to shine a light on these inequalities for many years now. Separating mothers from their children; we are doing that right now.”
McGrath shared a conversation she had with her friend and reader, Dr. Jessica B. Harris: “She told me the story of how her great-grandmother was separated from her 2-year-old son.”
Harris, a culinary historian, college professor, cookbook author, journalist, and summer resident of Oak Bluffs, said, “It was my great-great grandmother — my great-grandfather Samuel Philpot’s mother, who was sold South from around Roanoke in Patrick County, Va. Her last words, as remembered according to the family story, were ‘Be a good boy, Sammy.’ As an adult, he became a preacher. The passage I read, numbered 22, resonated, so I’m not sure I’ll read that one again next year. The history of it all, while it absolutely needs to be known, was a painful remembering.”