Community reading of Douglass’ famous speech on tap in Northampton on Saturday

  • Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879. GEORGE KENDALL WARREN/NATIONAL ARCHIVES GIFT COLLECTION

For the Gazette
Published: 6/29/2022 7:52:04 PM
Modified: 6/29/2022 7:49:29 PM

Leading up to Independence Day, communities across the commonwealth are preparing to recite Frederick Douglass’ 1852 address “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, bringing a dose of historical clarity and racial consciousness to a trademark American holiday.

Reading Frederick Douglass Together, an event hosted by Northampton nonprofit Mass Humanities, gives volunteer readers and audience members a script, a microphone, and a venue for nuanced patriotism, and sends attendees home with literature on Douglass and his years spent in Florence and Northampton.

His words are “as relevant today as they were when he stood on the balcony of Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York 170 years ago,” Mass Humanities Executive Director Brian Boyles said in a statement about the event.

The 45-minute speech erodes the idea of colorblind patriotism, likening the Fourth of July, a holiday that did not represent independence for enslaved Black people at its inception, to a yearly reminder of captivity.

It’s a time-tested rebuke of American chauvinism, of, in Douglass’ words, “the gross injustice and cruelty to which [Black Americans are] the constant victim,” but it’s now being spoken by a new generation of orators.

Across 22 Massachusetts cities and towns, participants will take turns reading excerpts from “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and engage in an open-ended conversation afterward.

Historic Northampton Co-Executive Director Elizabeth Sharpe is gearing up to host Northampton’s reading Saturday at 11 a.m. She commented that the unity that emerges from collective recitation is “an incredibly moving and unparalleled thing.”

The museum and education center houses Mass Humanities on its premises and was the first location to join the project in 2019. From the fortuitous partnership between Historic Northampton and Smith College also emerged the opportunity to distribute free Smith museum passes to attendees and to promote a Smith mini-documentary about Douglass titled “Lessons of the Hour.”

“Everyone’s doing it together, standing up at the line together, reading together, listening to it together, and then people stay afterwards and we have a community reckoning that is truly very powerful,” said Sharpe.

In Amherst, The Wayside Inn Foundation hosted its reading on June 25. The Inn, whose namesake, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, inspired and was inspired by Douglass’ words, celebrated Douglass’ “powerful language, resolute denunciations of slavery, and forceful examination of the Constitution,” according to organizers. 

In Plainfield, a reading will be held at the Shaw Memorial Library at 10 a.m. Monday, July 4. This reading will be paired with a reading of the Declaration of Independence.

Each of them moderated by a Mass Humanities staff member and funded by a Mass Humanities grant, the readings happening statewide will include speakers from academic, philanthropic, legislative, journalistic and athletic spheres, including state Senate President Karen Spilka, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, and Congressman Jim McGovern.

This year, Mass Humanities will hold a virtual reading on June 29th in addition to the in-person community events.


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