‘What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?’

Reading Frederick Douglass’s speech holds special significance on Juneteenth weekend. 

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Under the shifting clouds and peeking sun on Saturday morning, participants and supporters gathered at Inkwell Beach in Oak Bluffs to make a recording of the annual reading of escaped slave turned abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” This has been a tradition of the Renaissance House, a retreat for writers focused on social justice issues, for over 20 years. The recording of the event is planned to be released online on July 4 on the MVTV YouTube channel.

Douglass originally delivered his more than 10,000-word speech as “an address to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in Rochester, N.Y.” in 1852, according to the National Endowment for the Humanities. Rather than just commemorate the 76th year of American independence, Douglass used the opportunity to address the oppressive evils that stem from the institution of slavery to his “fellow-citizens.”

The reading of the speech has traditionally happened on July 4, but COVID made it unsafe to hold in person.

“We ended up doing it virtually in 2020 and 2021,” Makani Themba, who organized the event for Renaissance House, said. “This is sort of a soft launch. So, instead of doing it on July 4 with an audience, we thought we would do it a bit more socially distanced and have the readers perform, and broadcast it on the Fourth so people can enjoy it.”

Themba said while the “camaraderie and energy” during the in-person readings will be missed, it was still nice to gather in this manner to prerecord the speech readings. Speech readers are “people from all walks of life,” according to Themba. Some are Islanders, but there are also visitors who participate.

“We tend to have somewhere between 25 and 70,” Themba said. This year, 21 individuals read excerpts from the speech, either from a printout or on a teleprompter. A group reading by children, of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s 1845 poem “Triumph of Freedom,” which comes at the end of Douglass’ speech, was also read.

“It’s one of my favorite things to do during the year,” Susanna Sturgis, one of the readers, said. 

Themba also explained the significance behind holding the event at Inkwell Beach. “It’s a place where Black people, people of African descent, were able to gather and be free to swim without restriction, to enjoy each other, to have this space. I mean, it started as a part of segregation, but people reclaimed it and made it a place of their own,” Themba told the Times. “That kind of freedom is always worth celebrating.”

Despite this taping being listed with the many Juneteenth events occurring this weekend, the timing was actually coincidental. 

“It was just a really awesome coincidence that it was on this weekend,” MVTV access coordinator and instructor Michelle Vivian-Jemison, who has helped with the event for at least 10 years, told the Times. “I think it was a good start to the day for most folks, because there are so many things going on that they can go from feeling this sort of enrichment and reflection to just start the whole weekend.”

For Vivian-Jemison, the diverse community involvement made reading Douglass’ speech significant.

 

“It’s a hard topic. It’s a hard speech. A lot of real truth, which a lot of people can be resistant to, but they’re not. It’s always a welcoming and supportive environment,” she said. 

Themba also said despite the coincidence, the recording session happening on Juneteenth weekend held significance. 

“What Frederick Douglass has to say … every year it’s fresh. It’s like he wrote it yesterday,” she said. “I think we’re in a period where there are folks trying to take us backwards in history, some tendencies toward regression, and we’re still in this fight for our dignity, we’re still in this fight for full humanity.”

Themba told the Times Juneteenth reminds people of a “terrible history that not only haunts us but harms us.” However, it also shows the resiliency of those who were freed from slavery and the continued resilience of their descendants. Examples Themba listed were Black churches and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), many of which faced adversity but continue providing a space for Black people. Themba said it is “our responsibility to take up the mantle” of freedom, humanity, and continuing this work while remembering what their ancestors went through.

“That is as relevant to Juneteenth as I can think of,” Themba said. 

 

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