In the nineteenth century, many American communities and cities celebrated Independence Day with a ceremonial reading of the Declaration of Independence, which was usually followed by an oral address or speech dedicated to the celebration of independence and the heritage of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers. On July 5, 1852, the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York, invited the Black abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass to be the keynote speaker for their Independence Day celebration. The Fourth of July Speech, scheduled for Rochester’s Corinthian Hall, attracted an audience of 600. The meeting opened with a prayer and was followed by a reading of the Declaration of Independence. When Douglass finally came to the platform to deliver his speech, the event took a jarring turn. Douglass told his audience, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” And he asked them, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?”
Within Douglass’ now-legendary address is what historian Philip S. Foner has called “probably the most moving passage in all of Douglass’ speeches.”
What, to the American slave, is your 4th 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. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
On this and every July 4th, Americans might do well to re-read and reflect on Douglass’ famous message. It challenges us to move beyond the biases and blind spots of our own cultural privileges and consider those around us for whom, as Langston Hughes said, “America has never been America.”
Read Douglass’ complete speech here, and watch actor Danny Glover recite an excerpt from the address below.
Chicago-based curator and Threewalls Executive Director Jeffreen M. Hayes’ exhibition AFRICOBRA: Nation Time has been selected as an official Collateral Event of the historic Biennale Arte 2019 in Venice (May 11 – November 24, 2019). The exhibition, which heralds the eponymous collective of young Black artists working in 1960’s Chicago, debuted at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami in December of 2018, and will be on view in Venice (Ca’ Faccanon, San Marco, 5016 [Poste Centrali]) through the duration of the Biennale Arte 2019 from May 11 – November 24. Hayes’ recent independent curatorial work includes participating in a panel on disrupting systems at the 13th Havana Biennial (April 12 – May 12, 2019), and the curation of Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman, an exhibition on view at the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville, Florida through April 7, 2019.
“The opportunity to bring the work of the AFRICOBRA collective to this historic and global stage is an honor I do not take lightly,” said Hayes. “Bringing forward the histories and cultural significances of artists from the African Diaspora is a personal mission, and recognition of this mission from art institutions worldwide is an incredible step for each artist whose story will finally be told.”
Image of Jeffreen Hayes by Milo Bosh
AFRICOBRA: Nation Time’s exhibition at Biennale Arte 2019, presented by bardoLA, is the first time the work of this vital, definitive and historic Black Arts collective has been celebrated by global audiences on this scale. Hayes features more than 40 works by members of the collective, along with historic documentation and archival photographs in this large-scale exhibition. AFRICOBRA was founded on the South Side of Chicago in 1968 by a collective of young Black artists, whose interest in Transnational Black Aesthetics led them to create one of the most distinctive visual voices in 20th-century American art. The key characteristics to what we now consider the classic AFRICOBRA look—vibrant, “cool-ade” colors, bold text, shine and positive images of Black people —were essential to everyday life in the community from which this movement emerged. The five AFRICOBRA founders—Jeff Donaldson, Wadsworth Jarrell, Jae Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu and Gerald Williams—understood the potential power visual art has to communicate deep meaning on multiple registers. Their collective impact helped establish the visual voice of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s. The exhibition debuted in December of 2018 at Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami. For more information on Biennale Arte 2019 Collateral Events, click here.
In addition to the upcoming inclusion in the Biennale Arte 2019, Hayes’ recent independent curatorial projects include speaking in a panel during the 13th Havana Biennial, which takes place April 12 – May 12, 2019. In the conversation, titled Curating In and Out of the Institutional Frame, Hayes will share her strategies for presenting curatorial work with different types of art institutions while expanding the art historical narrative and dismantling systemic exclusion of artists of the African Diaspora. The panel will be in conversation with Mark Scala, Chief Curator at the Frist Art Museum; Grace Aneiza Ali, Assistant Professor at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University; and independent curator Helga Montalván. The panel will take place on April 16 at 10 am in Matanzas.
Another significant exhibition curated by Hayes, Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman, is currently on view at the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville, Florida through April 7, 2019. The exhibition reassesses artist Augusta Savage’s contributions to art and cultural history through the lens of the artist-activist. Savage (1892-1962) overcame poverty, racism and sexual discrimination to become one of the most influential American artists of the 20th century, playing a pivotal role in the development of some of this country’s most celebrated artists, including William Artis, Romare Bearden, Gwendolyn Bennett, Robert Blackburn, Gwendolyn Knight, Jacob Lawrence and Norman Lewis. Hayes brings together nearly 80 works from 21 national public and private lenders, presenting Savage’s small- and medium-size sculptures in bronze and other media alongside works by artists she mentored. The exhibition will travel nationally to the New-York Historical Society, the Palmer Museum of Art at Pennsylvania State University and the Dixon Gallery & Gardens (Memphis). For more information on the exhibition, click here.
About Jeffreen Hayes
Curator Jeffreen M. Hayes earned a Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, a Master of Arts in Art History from Howard University, and a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities from Florida International University. She is currently the Executive Director of Threewalls in Chicago and has previously worked at the Birmingham Museum of Art, Hampton University Art Museum, the Library of Congress and the National Gallery of Art. Her curatorial projects include “Intimate Interiors” (2012), “Etched in Collective History” (2013), “SILOS” (2016), “Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman” (2018), and “Process” (2019). She was a guest curator for Artpace San Antonio’s International Artist in Residence Program from May–August 2018. She is also a TEDx speaker and spoke about “Arts Activism in Simple Steps” in Fall 2018.
Threewalls was founded in 2003 to provide support and visibility for the visual arts community in Chicago. The founders wanted to encourage a greater awareness of Chicago’s art scene by inviting emerging professional artists to share in the city’s rich histories, resources and creative communities. Over the past fifteen years, Threewalls has been a center for artist-focused programming, critical writing, and direct support for artist projects. Threewalls hosts artists interested in working in and with diverse Chicago communities through their RaD Lab program; supports interactive work by local and regional artists in Outside the Walls; and programs salons to generate open dialogue, the presentation of new ideas and the publication of new writing. Threewalls partners with other organizations on exhibitions, publications, and education programs in an effort to broaden and contribute to the contemporary visual arts. For more information about Threewalls, visit three-walls.org/.