Frederick Douglass on the 4th of July

“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” asked Frederick Douglass. The Fourth of July speech is less than five minutes long. Here is a performance by descendants of Douglass.

Read the transcript here.

Last year, I read Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi. That led me to knowing how little I knew about Frederick Douglass. I am around the middle of Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom by David Blight. Coincidentally, I read the part about this speech last week.

Last year, I started noticing Douglass speech performances on the Fourth of July. Are they new? I looked through YouTube and found that most of the Douglass reading are from either last year and three years ago or five years ago (2020, or 2018, or 2016). The oldest one I found was seventeen years ago (2004) by James Earl Jones (published on YouTube in 2007).

Another, nine years ago (2012),  from Howard Zinn Voices, is not nearly as mildly read as what Mr. Jones did. I wish I knew the name of the reader, but no credit is given on the video!

The disparity between my reaction to the James Earl Jones version and the reader from 2012 is marked.  It makes me wonder what Douglass actually sounded like.  For the people who aren’t going to read a lot of books, I suggest you watch a few of these. Tone and timing matter in a presentation like this.

Link to James Earl Jones video


Link to Zinn 2012 video

From the Blight book, Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom, I learned about how conscious Douglass was of learning to be an orator, and how much the Bible and other moral texts influenced what he spoke about. Listening to video of this speech brings that to life.

Who is speaking like this now? Who is writing like this? How else is racism being confronted rhetorically today?

Happy 4th of July. Let Freedom Ring.


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