Join Frederick Douglass Reading 2017 At Renaissance House In Martha’s Vineyard

June 30, 2017

The public is invited to a celebration of diversity and human rights by participating in the Renaissance House: Retreat for Writers & Artists’ 11th annual free dramatic reading of Frederick Douglass’ powerful landmark speech.

The speech “What Does the Fourth of July Mean to the Negro?” will be taking place on July 4 at 4:00pm on Martha’s Vineyard historic Inkwell Beach in Oak Bluffs.

Readers of all ages are invited to help bring the words of Frederick Douglass to life. Each volunteer reader will recite different sections of the 10,000-plus word address Douglass wrote in 1852 in the midst of slavery. Although it has been over 150 years since Frederick Douglass delivered his Fourth of July speech at a convention in Rochester, New York, the message is especially resonate during this turbulent political era.

Volunteer readers include New Yorker Dr. Jessica B. Harris, a longtime Martha’s Vineyard resident and acclaimed culinary historian, professor, journalist and author of 12 critically acclaimed cookbooks documenting the foods and food ways of the Africa Diaspora. “I usually do not celebrate July 4th. This year, though I feel it’s important to make Frederick Douglass’ eloquent words be heard through participating,” said Harris, whose recent memoir “My Soul Looks Back” recounts longtime friendships with James Baldwin and Maya Angelou. “I’m arriving a week earlier that I usually do Just to be in that number on the beach.”

Lifelong Martha’s Vineyard summer resident and New Yorker, Abigail McGrath, the founder of Renaissance House, created this community reading to celebrate the continuing impact of Douglass, the first Black citizen in U.S. history to hold a high-ranking government office.

“There is just something about Frederick Douglass’ words being carried out over the Atlantic waters where millions of Africans lost their lives during the Middle Passage,” McGrath said. “These blue waters are the perfect natural backdrop for public open-air readings of the most powerful anti-slavery message of all time – the Frederick Douglass’ 1852 Independence Day Speech.”

The architects for the Frederick Douglass reading include Frederick Collins, a law professor at John Jay College, an historical expert on Douglass, a cultural advocate and resident of Oak Bluffs. The director-editor-producer is Makani Themba, Chief Strategist at Higher Ground Change Strategies based in Detroit, Michigan. A social justice innovator and pioneer in the field of change communications and narrative strategy, she has spent more than 20 years supporting organizations, coalitions and philanthropic institutions in developing high impact change initiatives. She condensed the speech and tailored it to fit the needs of those who participate.

Renaissance House is a writers retreat sponsored by the Helene Johnson and Dorothy West Foundation. West and her poet cousin Johnson (Mc Grath’s mother) were writers during the Harlem Renaissance. McGrath’s interracial marriage was the inspiration for West’s best-selling novel The Wedding and television mini-series produced by Oprah Winfrey starring Halle Berry. During the 1960s, McGrath was also an Andy Warhol film actress in the 1960s. In 2000, Renaissance House was founded by McGrath, an author, playwright and filmmaker. It whose provides writers and other artists with a subsidized retreat away from life’s responsibilities and the space in which to create new works of art. It is one of the few retreats designed for issue-oriented writers, writers of color and writers of social justice.

Readers are requested to arrive by 3:30pm. The reading begins at 4:00pm. For more on the Frederick Douglass reading on July 4, please call Renaissance House at 917-747-0367 or email

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