Frederick Douglass' Descendants Recite His 'What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?' Speech


As Americans around the nation mark the Fourth of July, people continue to be reminded — this year more than ever — that the country still has a ways to go when it comes to equality.

Five young descendants of Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist in the 1800s, participated in a video for NPR, in which they recite excerpts of his famous speech, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?," pointing out the hypocrisy of Independence Day.

On July 5, 1852, Douglass recited the speech before an abolitionist group, explaining that the "celebration is a sham."

After reading several excerpts of the speech, descendants Douglass Washington Morris II, 20, Isidore Dharma Douglass Skinner, 15, Zoë Douglass Skinner, 12, Alexa Anne Watson, 19 and Haley Rose Watson, 17, reflect on how Douglass' words are still relevant in today's culture rooted with systemic racism.

In Douglass' speech, he asserts, "The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn."

The speech continues, "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."

After reading Douglass' words, the group shared their thoughts on how the speech holds up today in the wake of nationwide protests and calls for reform. "This speech was written almost 170 years ago, but this part of it is still extremely relevant, especially with today's protests," Morris said.

Alexa added, "I would say [the Fourth of July] isn't the time in which I gained my freedom."

"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," Isidore explained, leaving viewers with a sense of optimism. "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."

Several stars are also reflecting on Douglass' work on Independence Day, including Colin Kaepernick, Kerry Washington, Daveed Diggs, LeBron James and Anthony Anderson.

"Black ppl have been dehumanized, brutalized, criminalized + terrorized by America for centuries, & are expected to join your commemoration of 'independence', while you enslaved our ancestors," Kaepernick tweeted, alongside a video of Douglass' speech and images of racial injustice. "We reject your celebration of white supremacy & look forward to liberation for all."

Inspired by Douglass' speech, Hamilton star Diggs shared a powerful video on Instagram in which he brings up issues currently plaguing the nation, and questions the holiday and how people of color "fit into that celebration."

"Where is the country where my people are safe?" the Snowpiercer actor asks as pictures of recent victims of police brutality, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, appear on the screen.

Black-ish star Anderson posted a picture on Instagram of Douglass' original speech, writing that "his words still ring true today."

Washington also honored Douglass on social media, with a video tipping her hat, which was a reference to her ABC series Scandal, to the abolitionist.

"He was someone who was never shy about calling out the hypocrisy of celebrating ‘freedom’ on ‘Independence Day’ while millions of enslaved black people were still in bondage," the Little Fires Everywhere actress said of Douglass.

Washington added, "The man is a hero and an abolitionist and every year at this time I am inspired by is words."

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:

  • Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.
  • ColorofChange.org works to make the government more responsive to racial disparities.
  • National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help Black youth succeed in college and beyond.

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