Williamstown Theatre Festival actors invoke Frederick Douglass on July 4 — BTW column

A young man looks out from the brick balcony across the crowd. When he speaks, his voice carries clearly.

‘The distance between this platform and the slave plantation from which I escaped is considerable.’

I didn’t know this was coming, and it eases my heart. I’m sitting with a group of people in jeans and t-shirts on the grass in front of Sawyer Library. We are on the lawn and chunks of marble where the old library used to be, looking at the tall building where the new library has some of the founding documents of this country on display.

Every year on July 4, Williamstown Theatre Festival actors read from those documents. I’m here, and I think the people around me are, to puzzle out what the Declaration of Independence means in a year like this.

A year like this seems to be testing the principles and the structures that Declaration put in place. It makes me question what our independence means, and what we are doing with it.

As so I’m thankful when the readings begin with Frederick Douglass’ address, What to the Slave is the 4th of July? His American voice belongs here, and today I need to hear it.

Douglass was a powerful man, with the kind of charisma and intelligence that would draw open minds to him naturally. He could hold a far larger crowd than this in his hands.  And he was fully alive to danger. He risked his freedom and his life every time he spoke in public. He had lived in slavery and escaped north with his wife, and Congress was tightening the fugitive slave laws that could send him back to that hell without warning.

And in July 1852, he was asked to speak on liberty. He was speaking in Rochester, N.Y., to a crowd who didn’t want to hear that he knew how it felt not to be free. His answer has iron and irony in it.

What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? … Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.’

He is not celebrating an uncomplicated holiday on the country’s birthday. He is standing with more than 3 million people who had no independence at all. He is also acknowledging the blessings independence has brought to some people, and I do too. I know I benefit from more even than I can see clearly — even to sit at my desk on a summer afternoon and write this, is a blessing — to live where I live and do what I do — even to drink a cup of coffee quietly in the morning.

Following on Douglass’ words, the Declaration feels immediate and open to question. I remember that when Thomas Jefferson wrote it, no one knew what it would achieve. It is an insistence that the present government has gone intractably wrong. It is, mainly, a list of essential things the ruling power (the king) is doing, or not doing. And many of them feel eerily familiar as I listen today.

I feel the ripple in the crowd when we come to: ‘He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.’

I think the people around me, like me, are thinking of government policies against immigration. I am remembering Moustafa Bayoumi, when he came to speak at Bard College at Simon’s Rock this winter, and the stories he has collected of Muslim Americans living here in the last 15 years.

For depriving us in many cases of the benefits of trial by Jury.’

Bayoumi has written about families arrested and imprisoned without trial for months.

For transporting us beyond seas to be tried for pretended offences.’

Bayoumi has written about torture at Guantanamo too. I think of his essays, and of strengths and failures in our legal system. The right to a trial, to a defender, to submit evidence and speak for yourself is considerable. My dad, who has experience in different legal systems, has given me a vital sense of our court system, and in the last six months we have seen its power on a national scale.

But we have seen weaknesses. Douglass points to the elements of slavery written into the constitution. And I am keenly aware that the “new appropriation of lands” Thomas Jefferson wrote about above were taken from the people already living there, often many times over. When Douglass spoke, settlers were pushing into territories the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole and many others had been forced into not long before — and into Wisconsin, where the Mohican families who lived here had finally found a new place to rest.

As I think about the Declaration in the context Douglass has given me, I can see clearly what it is not. It is not a conversation about what the new country will do.

If you’re going to claim independence, you’re going to stand up and declare that you will make your own decisions. You’re saying you can do a better job than the people who are making them for you. The Declaration is full of the idea of right — but if you look at it fully, it’s a responsibility.

Granted, the conversation about what this country will do begins in the Constitution, as the actors sign off: In order to form a more perfect union, promote the general welfare, provide for the common defense, and secure the blessings of liberty …

But we are still having this conversation. Douglass calls for the interpretation of the Constitution as a genuine document of liberty, and I have heard the same call in headlines, in rallies in Pittsfield and conversations in public and private. This country is still independent, at least for now. Listening to the defiance in our Declaration, I am still wondering, what are we doing with our independence?

Many people feel that the government is not acting for them, and that the country is not acting as they want it to, toward its own people or toward other nations. It is hard to stand up clear-eyed and toast the country’s birthday without reservations.

I can’t celebrate fully, but I can be aware that Frederick Douglass’ words drew spontaneous applause on the lawn in the sun. As he said, I can form an opinion about the Constitution. And I can write it and make it public. I can hold my own independence in my hands. This country has given me that.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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