‘What have I ... to do with your national independence?’: Douglass speech read in Amherst

  • Choir director Jacqueline Wallace leads the Amherst Area Gospel Choir in a medley of African freedom songs to kick off a public reading of Frederick Douglass™’ Fourth of July Address as part of the Reading Frederick Douglass Together program, Sunday, on the common in South Amherst. FOR THE GAZETTE/Sabato Visconti

  • Choir director Jacqueline Wallace leads the Amherst Area Gospel Choir in a medley of African Freedom Songs to kick off a public reading of Frederick Douglass’ Fourth of July Address as part of the Reading Frederick Douglass Together program, Sunday on the common in South Amherst, MA. Sabato Visconti—Copyright.2021

  • Dr. Amilcar Shavazz, W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies Professor at UMASS Amherst, reads a passage from the Declaration of Independence during an introduction to Frederick Douglass before a communal reading of Douglass’ Fourth of July Address, Sunday outside the South Congregational Church in South Amherst, MA. Sabato Visconti—Copyright.2021

  • Dr. Amilcar Shavazz, W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies Professor at UMASS Amherst, reads a passage from the Declaration of Independence during an introduction to Frederick Douglass before a communal reading of Douglass’ Fourth of July Address, Sunday outside the South Congregational Church in South Amherst, MA. Sabato Visconti—Copyright.2021

  • Sixth grader Aaliyah Hall helps her little sister Ava Hall with her passage from “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” during Sunday’s reading on the South Amherst common. FOR THE GAZETTE/Sabato Visconti

  • Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, Former Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, reads a portion of Frederick Douglass’ famous Fourth of July Address in Spanish and English, during a Reading Frederick Douglass Program event, Sunday in the town common outside the South Congregational Church in South Amherst, MA. Sabato Visconti—Copyright.2021

Staff Writer
Published: 7/4/2021 8:37:05 PM

AMHERST — As he stood before some 200 people gathered on the South Amherst Common on Sunday, Amilcar Shabazz recalled some of the great abolitionists in western Massachusetts history.

“This is Underground Railroad country. We are descendants of that Underground Railroad,” Shabazz, a UMass Amherst professor, said. “So much history right here from western Massachusetts … this is our legacy.”

It was that history that Shabazz said those gathered were honoring Sunday on the Fourth of July, when he introduced the reading of the iconic Frederick Douglass speech “What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?”

The reading of the Frederick Douglass speech is a tradition begun in African American communities. In Amherst and beyond, the speech is read every Fourth of July, when Douglass highlighted 169 years ago the hypocrisy of discussions of “freedom” and “independence” in a country that enslaved and exploited Black Americans.

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” Douglass said in an address before the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in Rochester, New York, in 1852. “I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

This year, in what organizers have billed as an unprecedented event, 20 different Massachusetts cities and towns are taking part in the reading of the speech over nearly a month, beginning in Boston on Juneteenth and continuing through to the last reading in Jamaica Plain on July 11. In addition to the reading in Amherst on Sunday, Plainfield residents also took part at Shaw Memorial Library.

The readings were funded by Mass Humanities, which connected the events as part of its “Reading Frederick Douglass Together” program.

“The words of Frederick Douglass continue to resonate as we confront systemic racism and the legacy of slavery,” Mass Humanities Executive Director Brian Boyles said in a statement. “As we witness new efforts to remove the history of slavery from classrooms and public memory, it is an honor to partner with these communities as they make the courageous decision to reckon with our past.”

Douglass himself had a history in Massachusetts. After escaping from slavery in 1838, he found freedom in New Bedford and lived in the state for many years.

Sunday’s event in Amherst began with music from the Amherst Area Gospel Choir, singing songs such as “We Shall Overcome” and “This Little Light of Mine.”

Community members parked along the common, sitting on the grass as 43 readers joined collectively to bring the audience the words of Douglass.

Shabazz reminded those gathered that the day is celebrating the Declaration of Independence, which he said had good ideas but was flawed in that the original freedom it promised was not sufficient.

The crowd settled in as readers began to read from Douglass.

“What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?” Douglass wrote. “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?”




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