The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Frederick Douglass’s Fourth of July speech called out America for its hypocrisy. Trump’s takeover of the holiday shows we haven’t learned much.

Frederick Douglass’s historic home, Cedar Hill, in Southeast Washington.
Frederick Douglass’s historic home, Cedar Hill, in Southeast Washington. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Every July 4 for more than a decade, actor Phil Darius Wallace has performed excerpts from Frederick Douglass’s most famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Although slavery ended 154 years ago, the white supremacy ideology underpinning it did not.

As a result, racial injustice continues. And Wallace is set to attack it again in the great orator’s own words, on Thursday at Cedar Hill, Douglass’s historic home in Southeast Washington.

“No matter how many times I give the speech, there is an urgency you get from hearing the words,” Wallace said in a telephone interview from his home in Memphis.

That is probably even truer this time. At its essence, the Douglass speech, delivered in 1852, was a scathing indictment of American hypocrisy: a critique of a nation that claimed to hold dear the principles of freedom, justice and equality even as it enslaved black people.

Hours after Wallace’s performance, President Trump will lead the nation in a celebration of those same ideals against a backdrop of an immigration policy and law enforcement tactics that reeks of racism and borders on the inhumane.

And the president will attempt to obscure the immorality of it all with appeals to national pride buttressed with displays of military bravado. But Douglass knew, as did the interracial band of American revolutionaries who fought off the yoke of English colonialism, might does not make right.

“To side with the right, against the wrong, with the weak against the strong, and with the oppressed against the oppressor! Here lies the merit,” Douglass proclaimed in his speech, “and the one which, of all others, seems unfashionable in our day.”

And so it remains.

“ ‘There are 72 crimes in the state of Virginia, which, if committed by a black man, subject him to the punishment of death,’ ” Wallace said using his Douglass baritone voice, “ ‘while only two of the same crimes will subject a white man to the like punishment.’ ”

The Dawn of American Slavery

Then, reverting to his own softer tones, Wallace added, “Racial disparities in the criminal justice system continue and in some ways are just as blatant now as they were in Douglass’s day.”

The power in Douglass’s speech was his depiction of the practice of slavery that the country had so easily accepted — “to turn men into brutes, to work them without wages, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters.”

Just a few generations ago, millions of Americans were able to live with that — live and work and get on with their days in the midst of all that — without so much as flinching. And as a crisis along the nation’s southern border continues to unfold, as the homicides in our urban areas continue, as racial disparities in education, health and wealth continue to widen, we find a nation maintaining a robust tolerance for the suffering of those whose skin happens not to be white.

“ ‘The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused,’ ” Wallace said over the phone, giving voice to the great orator. “ ‘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.’ ”

Wallace was born in Flint, Mich., a predominantly black and largely poor city with a long-standing toxic water crisis that made it a national symbol of environmental racism in modern America. Personal indignation helps fuel his powerful presentation.

A graduate of the State University of New York’s Purchase College, where he studied theater, Wallace was between jobs as an actor, working as a security guard at University of Michigan at Flint when a co-worker made a suggestion.

“He said my goatee and rimmed eyeglasses made me look like Malcolm X, so maybe I could do a one-man show on Malcolm,” Wallace recalled. “My research into Malcolm’s life transformed my own.”

That was nearly 30 years ago. Since then, Wallace has done one-man shows portraying Malcolm, Martin Luther King Jr., poet Langston Hughes and writer Richard Wright. He’s also working on the production of a one-man show about Howard University educator Carter G. Woodson.

But it is the Douglass performance that resonates in July.

In 2017, Trump sounded as if he thought Frederick Douglass was still alive.

“Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice,” the president said at a breakfast to kick off African American History Month that year.

Maybe he’d heard about one of Wallace’s performances.

Maybe he should go see it this time.

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