Frederick Douglass Reading in Lebanon, July 3, 2019
Three organizations: VIMS, SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice in the Upper Valley), and UVIP (United Valley Interfaith Project)—with strong support from the City of Lebanon—hosted a reading of Frederick Douglass’s speech “What to the American Slave is Your Fourth of July.” This powerfully insightful speech was given by the escaped slave Douglass in 1852 at the invitation of the Ladies Abolitionist Society of Rochester, NY.
The event was held on the Green in Lebanon, NH, and community participation in our shared reading was tremendous. Close to 120 people attended and more than 50 read aloud the 54 paragraphs of the speech. Among the many, many voices we heard reading Douglass’s words aloud were city officials, a New Hampshire State Representative, two students and their teacher from Crossroads Academy, and many VIMS people. The Black Heritage Trails Association coordinated our event with other such readings held across New Hampshire at that same hour, noon, on July 3rd. A total of 11 towns participated.
The speech, while important historically, also has clear, direct, and important messages for us today.
“ . . . your boasted liberty [is] unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery. . . . There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States, at this very hour. . . .
“. . . notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery.”
Hooray and thank you to the many VIMS people who helped realize this opportunity to mindfully face “the truth of the ways things are,” as well as to share in our nation’s collective despair and the compassion of hope.
Here’s a copy of the speech as Douglass gave it https://www.vermonthumanities.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/DouglassJuly5Speech_complete.pdf and the edited copy, which is the one we used at the reading on July 3 https://www.vermonthumanities.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/RFDSpeechMedium061218.pdf.