Frederick Douglass' speech "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro" came back to life at Chautauqua on Thursday as actor Roger Guenveur Smith recited the abolitionist's words for the Interfaith Lecture
"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," Smith said, reciting the speech.
Douglass' original speech was approximately three hours long, Smith said. But Smith condensed it to the most poignant and pervasive parts.
The Fourth of July belongs to Americans, but not to slaves, Smith said.
"Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to
speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your
national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and
of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence,
extended to us?” Smith said.
Questions like those set the stage for Rev. William Watley’s
response, in which he outlined the significance of the speech and the
role of the African-American church historically and currently.
Watley said that listening to Smith’s recitation reminded him of two
quotes from prominent African-American authors, one from James Baldwin
and one from W.E.B. DuBois.
“To be Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be
in a rage almost all of the time so that the first problem is to control
it and not let it consume you,” Watley said, quoting Baldwin.
DuBois’ quote described the struggle of African-Americans who felt
they had no true identity and felt forced to identify themselves based
on how others perceived them. Watley stressed, though, that both their
identities as Americans and as descendents of slaves were important.
Internal struggles like this identity crisis still permeate society
and result in either powerlessness and rage or resignation and
bitterness. Reconciliation is the only long-term solution, but this
takes sacrifice and humility from both whites and blacks, Watley said.
Reconciliation and open dialogue cannot happen unless both parties
consider themselves equals. Equality also is one of the pillars that
all denominations of African-American churches share, Watley said. He
then described several others.
One of the pillars is that congregation members see racism as a sin,
not as a product of society. Racism is not only unfair to members of
society, but it is a theological deviation. Often, this fuels the anger
between whites and blacks.
Another common theme is that the music and liturgy of these churches
is not escapist but empowering. Historically, music was used to send
subtle messages among slaves.
“So often on the plantations, whites heard one thing and blacks meant
another,” Watley said, using an example he knew the audience would
recognize. “So when this old, broken-down black woman walked through
town singing ‘Steal Away,’ whites looked at her and sort of laughed
because she looked demented … but the blacks knew that Harriet Tubman
was giving a call.”
Education was considered a means of making money but more so of
gaining liberation. While Watley was in college, his grandmother would
send him money. In the accompanying letters, she would encourage him to
use the few dollars she could give him to continue his education.
“Because if you can get it in your head, nobody can take it away from you,” Watley said.
The significance of this lecture was that it took historical events
and put them in modern context, said the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, the
director of the Department of Religion at Chautauqua. Watley applied
Smith’s words from the speech to church and society today, and then both
the speakers and audience members pushed the Q-and-A session further
One woman asked if Watley envisioned a future world for his
granddaughter where reconciliation will have been accomplished. Watley
said that before President Barack Obama was elected, he had wanted to
envision such a world. After the election, he had much more hope.
“So this means that from 2008 to 2016,” Watley said jokingly,
acknowledging that Obama has yet to be reelected, “every white child
that is born will be raised with the consciousness that the first
president they knew was African-American. That very symbol begins to
reshape and change how this next generation looks at others.”
However, there still is political and social prejudice against Obama for his race, as another audience member pointed out.
It is easy for both blacks and whites to isolate themselves in their
communities without reaching out to people of other races and
ethnicities, Watley said in response.
This leads to an over-reliance on the media’s portrayal of each race,
and the only solution is for people to consciously move away from their
comfort zones. But the opportunities to bridge the gap between races
are abundant if people look for them, Watley said.
Another audience member, originally from Germany, compared America’s
continuing recovery from slavery to Germany’s recovery from its unjust
actions during the Holocaust. For this question, Smith brought Douglass
back into the conversation.
“Our country will not be able to move forward until the youth of this
country know the work of Frederick Douglass, for example, as well as
they know the work of Abraham Lincoln or of George Washington or of
Thomas Jefferson … so that we do not forget from whence we have come,”
Roger Guenveur Smith
Roger Guenveur Smith is an actor, writer, and director whose work has been internationally acclaimed. He created and performed the Obie Award-winning A HUEY P. NEWTON STORY and adapted it into a Peabody Award-winning telefilm, directed by his longtime colleague, Spike Lee.
For Mr. Lee's Oscar-nominated DO THE RIGHT THING, Mr. Smith created the stuttering hero Smiley, one of many in a gallery of memorable characters for the stage and screen.
Also among his historically-inspired performances are FREDERICK DOUGLASS NOW, CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS 1992, and the award-winning duet INSIDE THE CREOLE MAFIA, a "not-too-dark comedy" in collaboration with New Orleans native Mark Broyard.
Mr. Smith also directed the distinguished performance trio Culture Clash in their Bessie Award-winning RADIO MAMBO. Roger's most recent work includes a new solo, THE WATTS TOWERS PROJECT, and the Spalding Gray retrospective LEFTOVER STORIES TO TELL, both cited among the best of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times; and WHO KILLED BOB MARLEY? which inaugurated Harlem's new GatehouseTheater.
Roger co-stars with Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington in Ridley Scott's upcoming Vietnam War era epic, AMERICAN GANGSTER.
Rev. Dr. William Watley
Rev. William D. Watley, Ph. D. is the former Senior Pastor of the historic St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in Newark, NJ. Under his leadership, St. James has grown spiritually, numerically, and financially. Membership has tripled, the number of weekly worship services has doubled, and the annual church income has increased by 700%.