In the United States, today is the federal day off work to mark Independence Day, the 4th of July. It’s a wonderful thing to celebrate. In our little framily (friends and family) celebration, after the hot dogs and before the flag cake, we pass around a copy of the Declaration of Independence, in a newspaper or on a phone, and read it out loud, in turns. We started doing this when the kids were little, and it became tradition. It feels corny when we start, but somewhere in the middle of the indignant recitation of grievances against King George, it gets serious.
This year we’re also reading Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech: What to the slave is the 4th of July?
I won’t pretend to have known this speech until recently. It was not part of my education, as it should have been.
Frederick Douglass did not pull any punches. His speech is powerful. It’s furious. Frederick Douglass’s fire is fully as much a part of the nation’s legacy as the Declaration of Independence, and it sheds great light upon it.
Here’s the text of the speech.
Here’s a video of James Earl Jones reading excerpts from it.
And up top is the full speech, read by Ossie Davis. Listening to it, I tried to imagine what it sounded like in 1852, in a country in which millions were lawfully enslaved, on a day celebrating freedom.