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Vermont Humanities Kickstarts New Conversations On Race And Racism

The exterior of the Vermont Humanities Council building.
Vermont Humanities
The Vermont Humanities Council building.

For years, Vermont Humanities has sponsored community readings of Frederick Douglass’ famed July 5, 1852 speech. But not this year. We talk to Executive Director Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup to find out why.

Our guest is:

Broadcast live at noon on Thursday, July 2, 2020; rebroadcast at 7:00 p.m.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jane Lindholm: Let's talk a little bit about this Frederick Douglass speech, and then we can talk about why your organization has sponsored readings for the last five years, and why you're pulling away from that and maybe rethinking how to address questions of race and racism and the Fourth of July moving forward.

Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup: You know, that speech is a powerful, powerful, powerful document. As you said, it was written in 1852 and it was really one of one of the earlier strong cases made for abolishing slavery that was widely heard and read by white folks in the United States.

Find the full speech here, along with a discussion guide from Vermont Humanities

And Frederick Douglass gave this speech on July 5th for the first time, correct?

Correct. And part of what he was trying to talk about was this notion that the Fourth of July, which was even then really celebrated as Independence Day, didn't have the same resonance for every American. That for many Black Americans, who were enslaved at that time, the notion of Thomas Jefferson's words, “All men are created equal,” didn't resonate in the same way for everyone.

More from Vermont Edition: Racism – And Anti-Racism – In Vermont

You mentioned that this speech that Frederick Douglass gave was heard by many white Americans. What was the impact of it at the time?

Frederick Douglass was already a powerful leader in the abolition movement in the United States. And one of the things that we've learned over the years in working, especially, with the scholar David Blight, is that one of the things Frederick Douglass was particularly good at was writing and speaking to and for white audiences. He used a lot of rhetorical tricks in his speech, in his writings that would have really resonated with white folks who were sympathetic to the cause of abolition.

So that was the context in which he gave the speech for the first time. What made Vermont Humanities decide – and you weren't the only organization to do this – to think about sponsoring readings where community members recite this speech around the Fourth of July?

The program really began with Massachusetts Humanities maybe about 10 years ago, and they graciously allowed us to bring it to Vermont in 2015. We ran with it for five years. We encouraged and supported community centers, libraries, schools around the state to do a reading of the speech each year. And indeed, I think many places around the country do readings of the speech, so we weren't alone in that. And it really for many for many places in Vermont, was rapidly becoming a tradition, an important part of their holiday.

Can I ask you to reflect on what you were just telling me earlier, that at the time of this original speech in 1852, Frederick Douglass was addressing white audiences? How did you think about that in the context of Vermont demographics and the value of a speech like this today?

Sure. Of course one of the things that it means is that most of the audiences for the speech, most of the people participating in the readings were white folks in Vermont. And we started to hear a fair amount of feedback about whether the program was really an effective way for Vermonters to engage with each other around important issues involving racism, if it was actually mostly just white folks talking to each other. And we started to really listen quite carefully to that feedback and tried to think about the impact of the speech in a different way.

"We started to hear a fair amount of feedback about whether the program was really an effective way for Vermonters to engage with each other around important issues involving racism, if it was actually mostly just white folks talking to each other." - Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup, executive director for Vermont Humanities

What way was that?

Well, you know, many Vermonters, especially Vermonters of color, noted – as has been noted many times over the years – that reading Frederick Douglass on the Fourth of July, appears to suggest that, as with Black History Month in February, we only need to engage in this conversation once a year or during a relatively limited timeframe, rather than considering that maybe we need to be engaging with issues of race and racism in Vermont and around the nation throughout the year.

It really seemed to suggest that we could read Frederick Douglass on the Fourth of July, acknowledge how terrible it was to be African American during the first decades of our country's existence, and then really just kind of go back to living our regular lives and feeling like we've done our part by remembering through this reading.

More from Vermont Edition: Activism, Reform In A Country Built On Racism: A Conversation With Vt. Racial Justice Leaders

There were a number of other folks who suggested that perhaps we should consider uplifting and promoting the many Black writers and activists that are working today or in the more recent past.  Where not studying and learning from them, with a singular apparent focus on Frederick Douglass, was perhaps a disservice to contemporary Black thinkers like Angela Davis or John Lewis, Lorraine Hansberry, Bayard Rustin, Shirley Chisholm, Toni Morrison, so many others.

More from Vermont Edition: From Slam Poetry To Mr. Rogers: What Vermont Artists Have To Teach Us About Race

Still other folks noted that if Vermont Humanities wanted to promote historical writings and historical figures from the 18th and 19th centuries, perhaps we should consider doing more work around Black Vermonters like Lucy Terry Prince or Martin Freeman, or maybe the best-known person from the 19th century, Alexander Twilight. So those were all of the things that that came up for us as we were evaluating and thinking about whether reading Frederick Douglass was actually doing what we wanted it to do, which was to promote critical conversations about race and racism in Vermont.

And were those conversations happening before this current sort of tension and refocusing and highlighting of these questions about race and racism in the U.S.?

Absolutely. I've been at Vermont Humanities now for just about two years, and these were some of the first conversations that I had when I arrived. And I think that these conversations existed throughout the life of the program, from when it started in 2015 until now. And so it's not a conversation that we're new to at all.

In the end, I began to think about this question the same way that I think about a lot of the traditional Memorial Day celebrations around Vermont. They often include a young person, usually a fifth or sixth grader, reading the poem In Flanders Fields by John McCrae. I'm sure many of your listeners are familiar with it. In my youth in Addison County, I heard this poem every year, but I didn't understand the words and I didn't have any context for it. And the reality of World War I was completely outside of my understanding as a young person.

It started to feel a little bit like we were in danger of reading Frederick Douglass becoming that same kind of tradition. The systemic legacy of slavery and racism is just too violent to let it become just another traditional holiday reading where we don't understand the words.

More from Brave Little State: Remembering Vermont's 19th Century Black Communities

So what are you doing this year and what are you doing to further these conversations, bring them into a modern context and really push people to have those critical conversations that you were hoping would happen through the reading of Frederick Douglass?

We want to emphasize that the Frederick Douglass is a powerful, powerful writer and was a very powerful speaker during his life, and it would do him a disservice to allow his words to become separated from the reality of their historical context, and the contemporary relevance that they might have today.

So we're not throwing out Frederick Douglass. We're always going to be studying Frederick Douglass. But you'll find that on the reading Frederick Douglass pages [on the Vermont Humanities website], we're now talking about it beyond Frederick Douglass. There are many more suggestions of other Black writers that you can read in your community, that you can learn from – more contemporary folks, some of the folks that I mentioned earlier.

"The systemic legacy of slavery and racism is just too violent to let it become just another traditional holiday reading where we don't understand the words." - Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup, executive director for Vermont Humanities

You'll also find a page on our website that that is a response to the deaths of George Floyd, titled “We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest.” That's a quote from the great Ella Baker. It has a lot of suggestions on actions that you can take right now, to add your voice to the conversation and to make some change. You'll also see that we're continuing to use our platform to support current Black writers, artists, activists, academics, people in Vermont like Jarvis Green and Major Jackson and Rajnii Eddins and Emily Bernard.

More from Vermont Edition: Representation & Writing: Who Gets To Tell Whose Story?

People outside of Vermont like jazz scholar and VPR friend Reuben Jackson and playwright Stacey Rose. We've been particularly thankful to be in relationship with Jarvis Green [founder and artistic director of JAG Productions in White River Junction], who's helped us to bring some of those voices onto our platform.

Encourage everybody to get out and see what they're doing at Jag Productions during the pandemic and of course, to support their theater again when it can reopen. We're also inviting a lot of other scholars of color to work with us, like Laura Jiménez from Boston University. She's a Latinx scholar working on racism in young adult literature.

We recently had James Chase Sanchez from Middlebury College talking about the legacy of white supremacy. And right at the beginning of the pandemic, we had poet Richard Blanco reading from his new book, How to Love a Country.

So we're integrating a lot of this anti-racism work throughout everything that we're doing so that it's not just a once-a-year, Fourth of July moment. It's a constant effort to help lift up voices of people of color, and especially at this time, Black folks. That's not work we started yesterday; it's work we've been doing for a long time. But now we do hope that it is really very apparent to folks when they are visiting with us and participating in our work that this is something we're doing year-round.

You mentioned the experience you had as a sixth grader and thinking about, how In Flanders Fields felt so removed from your experience and your idea of conflict and war. Could you speak to sixth graders today, not just about what they might want to be reading and hearing from other young people, but the ways that they might be able to contribute through their own creative work?

More from Vermont Edition: Talking With Kids (And Parents) About Systemic Racism

We're seeing that over and over again in this time, right now, that youth are leading much of this moment. And there's a lot of work that very young people are doing. I also find it pretty heartening that a lot of adult activists, writers and academics are producing versions of their work that are accessible to middle school students.vTwo years ago, right as I was starting, we welcomed Ibram X. Kendi. He's a professor at Boston University and a great thinker on issues of race in the United States right now.

He wrote a book a couple of years ago called Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.

He came out with another book called How to Be an Anti-Racist. Both of those books are now available in editions for young readers to help them think about what they can do.

Here in Vermont, I really look at some of the work that's happened in the school districts in Burlington, in Montpelier and other places. Young people have organized efforts to raise the Black Lives Matter flag at their school, for example.

More from VPR: Shelburne, Charlotte Teens Lead Village In Rally For Racial Justice

I know my young person is a rising sixth grader at Main Street Middle School, and they have a Black Lives Matter flying at their school. They have activist groups that are actively doing work to help make the community in Montpelier a more welcoming and less racist place.

And I think they're really looking at not just how to be nicer, but how to think about systemic racism and how do we eliminate that from our schools, from our health care system, from our correctional system, from our policing system? So young people are really leading this movement and we have a lot to learn from them.

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