Now in its 10th year as an annual attraction on the island, organizer/host Abigail McGrath, founder of Renaissance House, is calling for more voices to read different sections of the 10,000-plus word address written in 1852 in the midst of slavery. Martha’
“Each year, Renaissance House Writers-in-Residence participate in this historic reading on the beach. However, we need all kinds of voices, men, woman, children, soft, loud, sweet, tough -- to give life to one of the greatest speeches known to mankind. We want everyone to be part of this event,” says McGrath. “Douglass always called for unity of spirit and purpose.”
“More than 150 years after Frederick Douglass delivered his Fourth of July speech at a convention in Rochester, New York, the message still resonates throughout these times and throughout the world where freedom is elusive and the human rights of people are ignored,” McGrath added. “Some problems which existed in Douglass’ time exist today, making his message timeless and universal.”
“This event also celebrates the power of the creative process, written word, critical thinking and oration to unite people and bring them together to act,” she continued. “Mr. Douglass is arguably American history’s greatest example of this. And there’s no better way to celebrate this special day.”
The public is encouraged to participate in the Frederick Douglass reading on July 4th. The projects’ architects include Frederick Collins, a law professor at John Jay College, a fan of Mr. Douglass and a cultural advocate and resident of Oak Bluffs and Makani Themba, executive director of the Praxis Project, a grass roots media policy non-profit in Washington, DC. She is a Renaissance House Writer-in-Residence and the editor/producer of the Frederick Douglass speech presentation.
“The first time we read a portion of the speech in a small group, I was reminded of its power. It was refreshing, contemporary sounding. It took my breath away,” explained Themba.
“After the first Renaissance House group reading, I took the 10,000-word original speech and broke it into parts,” Themba added. “By the fourth year, the project had evolved into 20 speaking parts with an entire community chorus. Last year, the chorus section alone numbered well over 50 voices.”
Each year, Professor Collins starts the readings. The program will continue with members from the audience reciting passages from Frederick Douglass' historic speech. This year, there is an expectation of a few hundred, but that number could increase by thousands; word of Renaissance House’s annual event is getting around the country. Members of the Brooklyn-based North East Publishers Association, for instance – representing more than 250,000 in combined readership, in a salute to Douglass entrepreneurial success as a newspaper publisher, will this year extend McGrath’s Renaissance House project to their readers, encouraging their readers to immerse themselves in the speech and pass it on.
But it’s Martha’s Vineyard that appeals to McGrath who is delighted that her project inspires others off-island. “There is just something about people of all ages, all backgrounds, reading these words, and those words being carried out over the Atlantic waters where millions lost their lives during the Middle Passage,” she said. “And each person brings their own light and energy to these words.”
Themba says she focuses on the historical context. “1852. A Black man speaks to a packed hall full of whites without air conditioning and he is lighting them up. It defies our standard narrative of Black power and voice in the 19th century. And I love how people of all walks of life, all races, just show up to read Douglass’ words. Each person brings their own light and energy to these words. Each time I hear their voices, it’s new all over again - each and every year.”
The Atlantic Ocean, edging the Inkwell Beach at Martha’s Vineyard, was the resting place for millions of Africans en route to enslavement in America during the Middle Passage. On this July 4, the azure depth will form the perfect natural backdrop for public open-air readings of the most powerful anti-slavery message of all time – the Frederick Douglass’ 1852 Independence Day Speech.
Renaissance House is an annual writers retreat sponsored by the Helene Johnson and Dorothy West Foundation. West, the author of the award-winning novel and film The Wedding, and her poet cousin Johnson (Mc Grath’s mother) were writers during the Harlem Renaissance. It was founded by McGrath, an author, playwright and filmmaker, who was the inspiration for the novel The Wedding. Renaissance House provides writers and other artists with a subsidized retreat away from life's responsibilities and the space in which to create new works of art. It is one of the few retreats designed for issue-oriented writers, writers of color and writers of social justice.
To participate in the Frederick Douglass reading on July 4, please call Renaissance House at 917-747-0367 or email Renaissancehse@