Monday, July 04, 2011

Independence Day: Guenveur Smith Recites Douglass

Back in 2005 and 2006, I posted links to Frederick Douglass's famous 1852 speech, "What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?" (The prior links to the Douglass archives are now defunct, but the new link is working.) He delivered this oration to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, unpacking that already crystallizing haze around the American Revolution and the gap between the country's espoused principles and its reality. Only two years earlier, in 1850, California's admission threatened to overthrow the balance between free and enslaving states, and only two years later, another political battle erupted over Kansas's possible admission as an enslaving state to pair with Minnesota. (Both entered the Union as free states, Minnesota in 1858, Kansas in 1861.)

Although a gulf of 150 years separates us from the start of the Civil War and its aftermath, elements of Douglass's speech still have relevance. In honor of the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War's beginning, here is a video, which Chris Stackhouse sent via a link today, with the actor Roger Guenveur Smith, perhaps best known for his play and performances as the late intellectual, activist and Black Panthers leader Huey Newton, reciting a small portion of Douglass's words. (Oddly, as a another friend pointed out, it's tagged as "extreme" and also listed as under "Comedy"...huh? America!) A bit of searching online turned up a fuller performance of Douglass's words (at 1:19:40 into the video.) Smith has also written and performed a solo show, Frederick Douglass Now.

We might also ask ourselves what citizenship and independence mean at a time when we have a sizable number of people living in the US who have no opportunities to live and participate fully in the society because of a lack of legal documentation; when we do not have equal rights for all Americans regardless of gender, sexual orientation, national origin, class, religious faith, disability status; when we're incarcerating far too many black and brown people still; and when we have innocent people interned without any legal rights, without any charges against them, without any recourse, and no outcry from the vast majority of our fellow Americans about any of this.  What to them, or to us, really, is the 4th of July? It must be about more than cookouts, family reunions, a long weekend, firecrackers, and whatever distractions those in power whip up to keep our eyes off the true prizes, which include our humanity and that of those living amidst us.

Roger Guenveur Smith recites "What To the Slave Is the Fourth of July" at 1:19:40 (from Children of the Enlightenment: The Ideological Origins of Black Agency and Activism—A dramatic reading of Frederick Douglass' speech "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" by actor Roger Guenveur Smith sets the stage for a wide-ranging discussion and interpretation of the evolution of black activism between the Revolutionary and the Civil War periods. NMAAHC Director Lonnie Bunch is joined by scholars such as Clement Price of Rutgers University. Music by the Umoja String Quartet. Presented on February 16, 2011)

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