On July 5th, 1852, Frederick Douglass, one of the greatest orators in American history, delivered what is acclaimed as his greatest speech:
What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?
What follows is a ten-minute immersion into the speech, featuring the inspired, soaring voice of the late actor and director Ossie Davis.
Guiding us, for historical and rhetorical context, is David Blight, the popular Yale professor and author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2019.
Please click play below for the experience.
Frederick Douglass lived his first twenty years enslaved, before escaping and making his way to the northeast.
He began telling his story and preaching at an AME church in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Abolitionist leaders discovered Douglass there and invited him to Nantucket in 1841, to attend one of their regular anti-slavery gatherings on the island. It was at Nantucket’s Atheneum that Douglass would give his first public address to white abolitionists.
Professor Blight tells us of the abolitionist organizers:
... before they’d even taken the ferry boat back to the mainland, he was invited to join the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society circuit of abolitionist speakers. And that was the beginning, at age twenty-three, of Douglass’ life as a public orator, as an itinerant abolitionist speaker, and as this brilliant young man of words, who became within about three to four years the biggest star on the abolitionist network.
Eleven years on the circuit led to Douglass’ historic speech for Independence Day, of which we now present excerpts — fittingly, given the history, for the Nantucket Book Festival.
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The Ossie Davis recordings of the speeches of Frederick Douglass can be purchased at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
Explore David Blight’s body of work here.
Explore the Nantucket Book Festival here.