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Fort Greene comedian delivers Independence Day talk on slavery

No Joke: Comedian Baratunde Thurston delivered a more than hour-long speech first recited by Frederick Douglass on July 5, 1852 at the Brooklyn Public Library’s main branch on July 1.
Photo by Louise Wateridge

Fort Greene comedian Baratunde Thurston acknowledged Independence Day by delivering a 164-year-old speech by legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass at the Central Library in Prospect Heights on July 1.

The more than hour-long monologue entitled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” is heavy stuff, laden with condemnation of a country that extols freedom while permitting slavery, but Thurston says he injected humor where he could and the end result was an event that wasn’t quite funny and not quite a bummer.

“I would say it’s fun-motional, it’s fun-vocative,” he said. “It’s not a comedy show.”

Douglass first wrote and recited the speech before the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in upstate New York on July 5, 1852, and his words have since been uttered in history classrooms throughout the country.

In the lecture, Douglass reflects upon the quintessentially American ideals celebrated on Independence Day, before going on to dissect the hypocrisy of those ideals in the face of a country that condones the ownership of men, women, and children as property.

Thurston, who has written for both “The Daily Show” and the Onion, said he was turned on to Douglass’s work by a Twitter follower in 2011 and became enamored with the abolitionist and his eloquent articulation of the plight of slaves.

“I though it was tremendous,” said Thurston. “I’m not a Frederick Douglass scholar but I’m definitely a fan, and I think the more people learn about him the more they respect them — or else they’re a terrible person, or an idiot.”

The comedian first performed the speech as a live audio stream from the Onion’s writing room, and has since been developing the work into a multimedia performance, featuring informational slides along with the occasional animated gif to lighten the mood.

As an example, there’s one point in Douglass’s speech where he lists the variety of professions that black men and women had proven themselves capable of performing, including doctor, engineer, and sheep herder — the latter of which Thurston illustrates with a black man twirling amid a scene from “The Sound of Music.”

“I don’t think he thought of that moment as comedic, but I did,” he said. “It was a good minute to relieve the audience of a little pressure.”

Now that Independence Day is over, Thurston hopes to keep working on his performance until it is ready to take on the road and bring the “fun-motion” of Frederick Douglass to audiences country-wide.

“His message is even more relevant now than when I first intuitively felt it,” said Thurston. “I know it’s not done yet.”

Watch Thurston’s entire speech at the library here.

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.

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