UPDATE: Some events have been postponed due to weather. For updated times, visit the Mass Humanities website.
As Independence Day approaches, Northampton-based Mass Humanities is sponsoring an unprecedented 20 readings of Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” speech from 1852.
Readings of the speech — which interrogates the concept of independence in a nation plagued by racial injustice — kicked off on Juneteenth this year. Nonprofit Mass Humanities began sponsoring these readings in 2009 and provides grants of up to $2,000 for affiliated events.
“Every year we say that the words of Douglass are resonant because of the ongoing work we need to do around racial justice,” executive director Brian Boyles said in an interview.
The number of events has doubled from 2019, the last time in-person readings were held, Boyles said. The 2021 lineup will last through July 18, with five events on July 4 (set everywhere from Amherst to Somerville) and one on July 5 (in East Falmouth), the same day Douglass, who lived in Massachusetts for many years, gave his address in Rochester, N.Y. For a complete schedule of Mass Humanities-sponsored readings, visit masshumanities.org.
The flagship reading will be held July 2 at noon on Boston Common — near the Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment Memorial, one of the first Black regiments in the Civil War. Co-sponsoring this event are the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, the Museum of African American History, and Community Change Inc., a Boston group that advocates for anti-racist education and action.
Grants from Mass Humanities cover event expenses such as water and PA systems, as well as fees for scholars to guide post-reading discussions. “We really believe it’s good to have someone who has expertise to lead a conversation, and also knows this content and Douglass’s life and the relevance that it has,” Boyles said.
“The way that opponents of voting rights are seeking to eliminate slavery from history books and public memory is all the more reason why we feel it’s very brave for Massachusetts communities to take the step they took this year, and embrace this reckoning, face up to a legacy of slavery,” he said.
UPDATE (June 30, 2021): A previous version of this article included an incorrect date for the final reading. The last reading will take place on June 18.
Dana Gerber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org