From Douglass to Obama, Smith and Watley compare history to present


The Rev. William Watley reflects and speaks on his history and connects Frederick Douglass’ speech to the present-day identity of a black man in the United States. Photo by Megan Tan.

Emma Morehart | Staff Writer

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 Series.

“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 forward.

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,” Smith said.