Actor Daveed Diggs Asks: ‘What to My People Is the Fourth of July?’

By N. Jamiyla Chisholm Jul 03, 2020

On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass asked a group of about 500 abolitionists “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” in a speech he gave in Rochester, New York. 168 years later and in advance of the July 4 holiday weekend, Tony Award-winning actor Daveed Diggs (“Hamilton”) updates the question and Douglass’ speech in a new video that asks: “What to My People is the Fourth of July?”

“Where is the country where my people are safe?” Diggs asks, over a video montage of black and white archival and contemporary images showing Black people in various states of freedom and joy alongside images of violent oppression and hate. 

The full video accompanying script was written by a collective of Black artists that included rapper Pharoahe Monch and award-winning writers and poets W. Kamau Bell, Safia Elhillo, Camonghne Felix, Idris Goodwin, Angel Nafis, Nate Marshall, Danez Smith and Lauren A. Whitehead.   

“When I heard that some of my favorite writers were remixing the original Frederick Douglass speech—a piece that has always meant a lot to me—and that they would like me to perform it, I jumped at the opportunity,” said Diggs, whose role in “Hamilton” premieres nationally on Disney+ on July 3.

“This piece captures the spirit of the original and adds to it the frustration of nearly 170 years of American refusal to value Black life while still expecting Black “citizens” to celebrate America. I’m honored to get to say these words. I hope people hear them. I hope we have contributed something to this very necessary moment of reckoning that maybe helps it last beyond just the moment.” 

Produced by Offsides Productions and Colehouse Walker Political Outcomes, the project was created in partnership with the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) to amplify their call to “defend Black lives, fight voter suppression and defund police,” according to a press release on July 1.

“Every year we are asked to celebrate this nation’s independence day, its freedom, and every year we are faced with the irony and cruelty as Black people who have never gotten to partake in that freedom,” Elhillo said. “This piece is the product of that mourning and that anger, honoring the original Douglass speech and responding to how little, ultimately, has changed for us since then. Real change comes from the people on the ground, not a government’s empty promises. That’s who I put my faith in—the people.”  

Watch the powerful video above, courtesy of M4BL.