‘What To The Slave Is The Fourth Of July?’: Descendants Read Frederick Douglass' Speech

Things We Saw Today: The Descendants of Frederick Douglass Read His ‘Fourth of July’ Speech

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As we celebrate our nation’s Independence Day, we are reminded now more than ever our country’s declaration of freedom was some of us, not all of us. In this short film, five young descendants of famed abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass read excerpts of his famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”.

His descendants, Douglass Washington Morris II, 20, Isidore Dharma Douglass Skinner, 15, Zoë Douglass Skinner, 12, Alexa Anne Watson, 19 and Haley Rose Watson, 17 read the speech that Douglass read on July 5, 1852 at an Independence Day celebration, where he discussed the pain and the hypocrisy of the founding fathers’ ideals.

Douglass wrote,

“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? 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. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an 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; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy.”

After the reading, the descendants discussed the meaning of the speech and its continued relevancy. Douglass Washington Morris II said, “This speech was written almost 170 years ago, but this part of it is still extremely relevant, especially with today’s protests.”

It’s a powerful video to watch, and a potent reminder that history is constantly unfolding all around us. And while we suffer struggles and setbacks, the arc continues to bend towards justice. Isidore Dharma Douglass Skinner phrased it best in saying, “I think in many ways we are still slaves to the notion that it will never get better, but I think that there is hope and I think that it’s important that we celebrate Black joy and Black life and we remember that change is possible, change is probable and that there’s hope.”

(via NPR, image: screengrab/NPR)

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Author
Chelsea Steiner
Chelsea was born and raised in New Orleans, which explains her affinity for cheesy grits and Britney Spears. An pop culture journalist since 2012, her work has appeared on Autostraddle, AfterEllen, and more. Her beats include queer popular culture, film, television, republican clownery, and the unwavering belief that 'The Long Kiss Goodnight' is the greatest movie ever made. She currently resides in sunny Los Angeles, with her husband, 2 sons, and one poorly behaved rescue dog. She is a former roller derby girl and a black belt in Judo, so she is not to be trifled with. She loves the word “Jewess” and wishes more people used it to describe her.