July Fourth holiday to inspire public readings 

  • Frederick Douglass, from the National Archives. George Kendall Warren

Staff Writer
Published: 6/29/2021 5:40:00 PM

PLAINFIELD — This July 4, a community reading event will read the Declaration of Independence and a powerful response to it from one of the greatest orators in American history.

For the sixth year in a row, residents of Plainfield will read both the Declaration and Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Plainfield’s event will begin at 10 a.m. at the Alden Pavilion behind Shaw Memorial Library.

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” reads part of Douglass’ 1852 speech. “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.”

Douglass was a former slave and a fierce opponent of slavery.

The Declaration of Independence, meanwhile, is the document that explains why the Second Continental Congress voted to declare independence from Great Britain, and contains the oft-quoted line, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

“These two documents I think have terrific meaning for the Fourth of July,” said Erik Burcroff, who started the program in Plainfield six years ago, after hearing about it on the radio. Pleun Bouricius, who helped to create the program, became involved with subsequent Plainfield readings.

“Frederick Douglass’ oratory is so moving,” Bouricius said.

The program, “Reading Frederick Douglass Together,” was created through Mass Humanities and began running in 2009. This year 18 communities in Massachusetts are participating in the reading program, among them Northampton, Amherst and Plainfield in Hampshire County. In all three, an abridged version of the speech will be read.

In Northampton, the community reading will take place on the grounds of Historic Northampton on July 3 at 11 a.m., while the Amherst community reading will take place July 4 at 3 p.m. on the Amherst South Common.

In Plainfield, however, the Declaration of Independence is also read.

Bouricius said that typically, participants in Plainfield read in a circle, although this year they will line up to do so for broadcasting purposes and to aid in social distancing.

Burcroff noted that everyone who shows up will get to read a numbered paragraph.

Last year, participation in the reading was limited to 12 people due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

After the reading, participants will break into three discussion groups centered on the Black Lives Matter movement and why some people are afraid of and angered by it.

“I expect it to lead to some discomfort,” Burcroff said.

He also said discussions might go into white privilege as well, and that he wants to stay away from virtue signaling.

“I’m really excited that the various protests around the country and standouts for justice will help to inform the discussion this year,” Burcroff said.

Bouricius grew up in the Netherlands and moved to the United States in 1981.

“I got incredibly seduced by the idea of America,” Bouricius said.

A historian, Bouricius said that she was compelled by the idea of a country basing its identity on texts and ideas and arguing about it, as well as the idea that dissent is part of the American system. At the same time, she noted that the United States is also a “land grab” made to look good by its texts.

Sunday’s event is funded in part by Mass Humanities and the Plainfield Cultural Council.

“It’s very important that we keep having public support for these programs,” Bouricius said.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.

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