This year, Independence Day is being observed at a time we have seen protests and calls for systemic reforms, across the U.S. and around the world. N.P.R. published this remarkable short film, in which five young descendants of Frederick Douglass read and respond to excerpts of one of famous speeches, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Mr. Douglass and his descendants ask that everyone to consider America’s long history of unequal rights among Black Americans.
“This is the 4th of July,” says Haley Rose Watson. “It is the birthday of your national independence and of your political freedom.”
“Oppression makes a wise man mad,” Isidore Dharma Douglass Skinner continues, as he recites the speech. “Your fathers were wise men, and if they did not go mad, they became restive under this treatment.”
“With brave men, there is always a remedy for oppression,” adds Zoë Douglass Skinner. “They succeeded, and today you reap the fruits of their success,” continues Isidore.
But, these descendants continue with Douglass’s wise words. “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?” I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life 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.”
“We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”
Yet, “I do not despair of this country.”
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“It is extremely relevant, especially with today’s protests,” says Isidore.
“There are certain tactics you need to use to get people to really hear your voice,” adds Haley.
“I know a lot of people are now are saying that it’s not as bad as it could be,” says Alexa Anne Watson.
“While the Fourth of July does not mean the same to me as it does to others, I wouldn’t say that it has no meaning,” cautions Zoë. “But I would say that it’s not the time when I gained my freedom.”
Though Frederick Douglass still had a lot hope, “I’m getting to the point in my life, where I’m only 20 years old and exhausted,” says Douglass, expressing his concern as to whether we will ever get to the point for freedom among Black Americans. And yet, “…I think that there is hope, and I think it’s important that we celebrate Black joy and Black life, and we remember that change is possible. Change is probable. And that there’s hope,” says Isidore.
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This piece was inspired by This Is Whitman, Alabama, a project by Jennifer Crandall that re-imagines life in the South today, as envisioned by Walt Whitman in his poem “Song of Myself.”
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Furthermore, it is interesting to note that Yale recently acquired a collection of items of the Frederick Douglass, includes “rarely seen family scrapbooks that offer a window onto his complicated private life.”