Last week, while scrolling through my organization’s Twitter feed like I usually do when work is slow, something caught my eye. “In Boston?” the tweet read. “@CCIBoston is doing communal reading of Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” I was intrigued—three weeks of DukeEngage reflection sessions discussing the brokenness of our national systems had me already questioning American patriotism. What could the Fourth of July possibly mean to someone who has been systematically oppressed, someone who has been explicitly denied the freedoms the holiday purports to celebrate?
Luckily for me the communal reading took place on a corner of the Boston Common just across the street from my office, so I dipped out on my lunch break to hear the speech. Although I had skimmed the speech the day before, I was overwhelmed when I heard it read out by a hundred different voices. I had no idea that a speech written on July 5, 1852, could seem so eerily relevant in 2016.
“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…” Douglass’ list goes on.
These words stung. Douglass’ condemnations weren’t directed just at Southerners, or slave-owners, or people like Donald Trump today—he was accusing the whole of America and American values. He was accusing the entire nation of hypocrisy, of remaining complacent to systematic injustice everywhere. And he minced no words about it, saying: “O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”
Duke Engage isn’t the kind of national revolution Douglass seems to be calling for. But it has inspired in me a smaller, internal revolution: my conscience has been roused, my propriety startled, and the hypocrisy of my actions exposed. CCI Boston, who organized the event in the Common, is a nonprofit just like our DukeEngage partners. But while I generally think of nonprofits as directed toward less privileged communities, CCI Boston’s mission is directed toward people just like me. Their website says: “CCI has done what few organizations are willing to do: shine a spotlight on the roots of racism in white culture with the intention of dealing with racism at its source, as well as with its impact on communities of color.”
What I most loved about hearing Douglass’ speech in the Common was the communal aspect of the reading—people of all ages and backgrounds took turns reading the text, and in their voices I could hear different tones of sadness, guilt, and anger. People had come together to own a national legacy that is much more complicated than parades and fireworks and hot dogs by the pool.