The sky over Oak Bluffs on Thursday afternoon was an appropriately patriotic show — striped with white clouds. On this Fourth of July, there were so many people splashing and lounging on the beach that it seemed like there was not enough sand to accommodate everyone. While the traditional way of celebrating Independence Day was in full swing, a more thoughtful and radical recognition of the day was occurring on Inkwell Beach.
The reading of Frederick Douglass’s famous speech “What Does the Fourth of July Mean to the Negro?” is an annual event organized by the Renaissance House Retreat for Writers and Artists. Douglass originally delivered this speech 167 years ago, in Rochester, N.Y. On Thursday, hundreds of people, some visitors from as far as Florida, gathered to watch more than 30 speakers give voice to his words.
In the speech, Douglass criticizes the idea of patriotism and celebration of freedom while millions of American citizens are not afforded the same privileges. He points out that the Declaration of Independence that July Fourth commemorates is laced with injustices, and marginalizes many peoples, and that it is wrong to celebrate this holiday without recognizing and taking action against its “hypocrisy.”
Audience members and speakers followed along on printed copies of the speech, divided into 30 parts. A mic stand set in the sand facing Beach Road served as the podium, behind which people of seemingly myriad ethnicities waited in line to read their part. In voices soft and pensive, thunderous and sarcastic, people found their own interpretation of Douglass’s meaning.
Dr. Kelly Robinson swept his arms out and pointed at his chest, intoning in a powerful manner, “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
Everyone applauded enthusiastically when he finished. Robinson told The Times that he had never read for this event before, but that he “loved it” and “loves Frederick Douglass.”
Renaissance House founder and event organizer Abigail McGrath wrote in a press release that Douglass’s words still ring with relevance: “The message still resonates throughout these times and throughout the world where freedom is elusive and the human rights of people are ignored,” McGrath said. “Some problems which existed in Douglass’s time exist today, making his message timeless and universal.”
Some speakers approached the mic in their still-wet bathing suits with towels draped over their shoulders, while others took the sand stage dressed smartly in colorful print muumuus or sundresses.
Colleen Powell was dressed in black and white. After giving her impassioned reading, she shared with me that while she had just stumbled into this event, she had been thinking about this speech a lot in recent days, “especially given the [immigration] crisis at our border.” When asked if she felt any empowerment or pride in reading, Powell said she felt quite the opposite: “If anything, I feel a burden.”
She said that it is unfortunate that “these words are still relevant today … that we use false morality to justify what is going on.” She held a toddler in her lap while the other speakers took the mic.
One of the last speakers was famed culinary historian, author, and seasonal Island resident Jessica Harris. She was met with enthusiastic cheers after she read her own part of the speech.
Over the rumbling of crashing waves, all the speakers and listeners together read the final lines of the speech, a text from prominent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison: “God speed the day when human blood/ Shall cease to flow!/ In every clime be understood,/ The claims of human brotherhood,/ And each return for evil, good,/ Not blow for blow;/ That day will come all feuds to end,/ And change into a faithful friend/ Each foe.”
Returning speaker Nancy Cohen said that she is always moved by the event. “This is the real recognition of July Fourth,” she said.