'What To My People Is The 4th Of July?': Daveed Diggs Performs 2020 Rendition Of Groundbreaking Frederick Douglass Speech
The Movement For Black Lives released a powerful update to Frederick Douglass' famous July 4 speech.
July 03, 2020 at 8:18 pm
Daveed Diggs and a group of decorated writers, poets and rappers have come together to create an updated version of Frederick Douglass' famous speech, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"
Organized by the Movement For Black Lives, Diggs powerfully recites a poem written collectively by Safia Elhillo, Lauren A. Whitehead, Pharoahe Monch, W. Kamau Bell, Camonghne Felix, Idris Goodwin, Angel Nafis, Nate Marshall and Danez Smith.
"What to my people is the Fourth of July? My people, who are failed every day by every country," Diggs says as images of Black people throughout U.S. history roll in the background. "Sleepless in the long night. Terrorized by fireworks. We who have cried salt baths for our kin."
"Tell me, what do we tell the children of your Fourth of July? What is death to a daughter? What is river to a sea? Where is the country where my people are safe?" he said.
The poem is a modern reworking of the groundbreaking speech that Douglass gave on July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York, after announcing that he would not celebrate the holiday until all of the country's enslaved people were freed.
The legendary former slave and author was lauded for the speech, and it is remembered as one of the greatest he's ever given. At the time, Douglass was infuriated after lawmakers signed the Compromise of 1850, which included legislation that effectively nationalized slavery.
Within the package was an amendment to the Fugitive Slave Act that forced citizens, even in the North, to return any enslaved person to the plantation they'd come from. In the speech, Douglass criticized abolitionists and others for celebrating Independence Day while Black Americans were still enslaved.
Elhillo, who helped write the 2020 poem, told ColorLines that much of what Douglass said more than 100 years ago is still applicable today.
“Every year we are asked to celebrate this nation’s independence day, its freedom, and every year we are faced with the irony and cruelty as Black people who have never gotten to partake in that freedom. This piece is the product of that mourning and that anger, honoring the original Douglass speech and responding to how little, ultimately, has changed for us since then,” Elhillo said.
The Movement For Black Lives worked with Offsides Productions and Colehouse Walker Political Outcomes on the video, and it was directed by Yvan Iturriaga.
“When I heard that some of my favorite writers were remixing the original Frederick Douglass speech — a piece that has always meant a lot to me — and that they would like me to perform it, I jumped at the opportunity," said Diggs. "This piece captures the spirit of the original and adds to it the frustration of nearly 170 years of American refusal to value Black life while still expecting Black 'citizens' to celebrate America. I’m honored to get to say these words. I hope people hear them. I hope we have contributed something to this very necessary moment of reckoning that maybe helps it last beyond just the moment."
Diggs spoke about the video during an interview with CBS This Morning co-host Gayle King. He said he is slated to play Douglass in Showtime miniseries The Good Lord Bird and performed parts of the original speech for the show.
Diggs said the performance highlighted the power of Douglass' words and the struggles Black people continue to face.
"I mean, it's over 100 days since Breonna Taylor was murdered. You know, there have been no charges yet. We are constantly confronted with a difference in value of our lives," Diggs said. "And so particularly as we reflect on this moment of the Fourth of July and what we're celebrating, this idea of independence — it's complicated, I think, for Americans of color to figure out how we fit into the celebration."