Gilbert: Reading Frederick Douglass

Jun 27, 2017

On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass, former slave, eminent abolitionist, and perhaps America’s greatest orator, spoke near his home in Rochester, New York at an event commemorating the Declaration of Independence.

In his speech, Douglass explores the meaning of the Fourth of July to the American slave. It’s a powerful and troubling speech. Douglass begins his remarks respectfully, calling the signers of the Declaration of Independence statesmen and heroes, great men whose deeds he admires.

But he points out the cruel irony of a nation celebrating freedom while keeping millions of humans enslaved. He calls it “inhuman mockery… to drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty… and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems.” He sees Fourth of July celebrations as “a sham… a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages."

This is the fourth year that the Vermont Humanities Council has invited communities or organizations across Vermont to offer communal readings of Douglass’s speech. Prominent community members and townspeople of all ages and backgrounds take turns reading short sections of the speech. Sometimes the event is held in front of the town hall; other times, it’s a small gathering, perhaps in a library. And if it’s a powerful speech to read, it’s more powerful to hear, and even more powerful still to recite yourself - even in part.

There’s usually discussion afterward, both formal and informal, because there’s lots to talk about. The speech challenges us to think in new ways about our heritage, about the present, and about the future.

The first of about 25 public readings of Douglass’s speech will happen tomorrow, Thursday evening, on the Norwich Green at 6:30. A full list of Reading Frederick Douglass events is available online. And all are welcome to attend and participate.

Douglass ends the speech hopeful that slavery will end due to a very contemporary-sounding reason – a shrinking world: he says that commerce has broken down the walls around cities and empires. “Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe…” and “thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are, distinctly heard on the other.”

I wonder what effect, if any, our shrinking world will have on freedom and equality today -- in our country or across the world.