Reading Frederick Douglass
Reading Frederick Douglass
by Bridgit Brown
This summer I attended a public reading called “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro: Reading Frederick Douglass in the Era of Barack Obama.” Organized by the Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, and co-sponsored by Community Change, Mass Humanities, the Ella Baker House, and a few others, the event invited people to read from the speech that Douglass gave 157 years ago titled The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro. I had only read parts of the speech before attending the event, and hearing it read aloud in front of the Massachusetts State House by people representing different racial and ethnic groups under different circumstances create d an ethereal experience for me. There are certain parts of it that are applicable today, and as a black person, I could identify with the past that he talked about as well experience his prophetic insight when he talked about the future.
The senators began the reading. It seemed a bit contrived to me, but I continued to listen because it was Douglass speaking through them, and his words were so powerful that they seemed to summon others to get in line and read a part of the speech too. Before too long, an audience began to swell on the steps, and people cheered and punctuated parts of the reading with claps, and even Amens.
In one corner of the steps sat a colorful group of about ten very young adults and I kept my eyes on them for a while. They were all dressed in yellow t-shirts and khaki pants, and they gave the speakers their lively applauds and sometimes even spoke too loud during the readings. When they rose to leave, I followed them up the stairs, hoping that one or two could share their experience of the event with me. Two of them spoke to me, and I initially found their responses rather daunting. That's another one of things that made the day seem ethereal.
There are lots of people walking around with no idea who Frederick Douglass was and what he did. I sometimes forget about this. Is that a sign of progress or regress? When we do not have to know about a man who lived his life challenging America to see the wrongness of slavery amidst celebrations of liberty and independence, are we free? It’s hard for me to answer this question because I really do believe that I am free since I have parents, grandparents, great aunts and uncles who sat in the back of the bus because they were law abiding citizens, and because they were black.
There is power in knowing and, for me, one of the most compelling statements that Douglass made in this speech was, “America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.” He also called America very young at the time of the speech, likening the nation to a child even though it was 76 years old then. Now, at 235 years old, we are not so young, but relatively much younger than most nations. Godspeed has abolished slavery, Jim Crow, and separate but equal fro m the law of the land and a “Negro” really heads up the oval office now. I always imagined that at the time this would happen, people would have no reason to talk about race because we will have gotten over it and a black president would be the sign of that. Clearly, that is false, but the future is today and, obviously, the way forward is to be mindful of the past while holding steadfast to the present. Public forums that invite people to participate and or share an experience like The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro are needed more today than ever before because they, among other things, create an opportunity to learn something that might have been missed or not provided at school – as was the case for the young people that I met in this video.