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Former ‘Daily Show’ comedian performs famous Frederick Douglass speech at Brooklyn Public Library

July 6, 2016 By Scott Enman Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Baratunde Thurston performs Frederick Douglass’ speech with fiery passion. Eagle photos by Scott Enman
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While many New Yorkers were stuck in Fourth of July traffic on Friday, numerous Brooklynites gathered at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central branch at Grand Army Plaza to watch the former “Daily Show” comedian and New York Times best-selling author Baratunde Thurston deliver a hysterical and enlightening rendition of Frederick Douglass’ speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Douglass was an African-American orator, writer and statesman, who, after escaping slavery in Maryland, became a renowned abolitionist. He was famous for his eloquent anti-slavery lectures that entranced audiences.

In Willard B. Gatewood Jr.’s essay review “Frederick Douglass and the Building of a ‘Wall of Anti-Slavery Fire, 1845-1846” Gatewood describes Douglass as a man “endowed with a near photographic memory, an expressive face, and a rich voice capable of great range in intonation and pitch, he utterly commanded any platform and invariably spoke in direct and unadorned language…  

“In fact, his treatment of the anti-slavery theme was remarkable for its variety, comprehensiveness, and sophistication. Sincerity and humor interspersed with satire, sarcasm, invective, and ridicule were standard ingredients of his platform performances,” Gatewood writes.  

On July 5, 1852, Douglass performed “What to the Slave” to a room full of white dignitaries at the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in Rochester, N.Y.

For the American slave, according to Douglass’ speech, the Fourth of July was not a day of celebration, but a reminder of the injustices that persist in America. In his more than 2,500-word dialogue, Douglass described the many atrocities that were committed against the American slave and how America is hypocritical to celebrate independence but still have slavery.

“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” Douglass said. “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.”

On Friday, Thurston performed “What to the Slave” in a rendition that Douglass himself would have much-admired.

Thurston commanded his audience with vigor and eloquence and performed the speech with flawless annunciation and articulation.

Thurston transformed what is a historically stern speech into a more lighthearted dialogue with a montage of hysterical images and videos. Photos of Kanye West, Adele, Babe Ruth and other historical and pop culture figures were shown.

When Thurston read the line “Their solid manhood stands out the more as we contrast it with these degenerate times,” a picture of Donald Trump appeared, which elicited laughter from the audience.

Throughout the performance, Thurston often stepped away from the podium to translate Douglass’ archaic words into modern terminology.

As Thurston read Douglass’ final paragraph, which begins, “Allow me to say, in conclusion,” Thurston stepped aside and said, “Warning, Douglass is about to go in.”

Thurston took a moment at the end of the speech to explain to the audience that although traditional slavery doesn’t currently exist in America, modern-day slavery persists through racism. That racism, according to Thurston, is revealed in the stop-and-frisks across the country and in the killings of black people by police officers.

The crowd was particularly moved when Thurston told a story about his sister, who, when she was younger, witnessed white police officers beat their father, arrest him and leave her alone in the car for hours.  

Throughout Thurston’s performance, the comedian induced laughter from the audience but also made them reflect on the revolutionary historical speech.

Daily Show's Baratunde Thurston performs famous Frederick Douglass speech at Brooklyn Public Library from Scott Enman on Vimeo.

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