July 6, 2020
This was the first time any of us have celebrated the Fourth of July in the middle of a global pandemic. My wife, Kathy, and I sought to stay safe, and be good citizens. We sequestered ourselves on the family farm in Foscoe, NC. On a normal visit, there would have been a house full of nieces and nephews with their accompanying friends and significant others. That group includes college students, flight attendants, retail workers, and food service workers. Despite our COVID Fatigue, and our growing need for social interaction, we decided against inviting the wider family, and instead enjoyed a more quiet and secluded weekend in the mountains.
The lack of excitement coupled with a fast internet connection gave me the freedom to do something I’ve never done before: read the Declaration of Independence and Frederick Douglass’ speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” back to back. As a reminder, Frederick Douglass delivered his speech on July 5, 1852, 76 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Slavery was still in full force across the South and it would be another nine years before the hostilities of the Civil War would ravage our nation.
From my vantage point some 168 years later, I was struck by how accessible, how articulate, and how relevant Douglass’ speech remains in our own time. In some ways, we have come so very far. In other ways, we have so very far yet to go. I was lucky to have the time and technology to read primary source documents from the comfort of a mountain retreat. It was nice to have time to listen to history, and to hear the authentic voices from a different time and place. I was moved by the hope and optimism of the message, despite the awful circumstances faced by Black Americans of the time. The themes that Douglass expounds are just as relevant today, maybe more so.
Our country was founded on timeless principles of equality, basic human rights, and justice for all. Saying it is easy. Making it a reality has proven to be more difficult. Clearly, many things still need to change before we truly live up to the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence. But if you listen for it, you can detect the sound of progress. Maybe it is in the language of our founding documents. Maybe it is in the voice of our most prominent Abolitionist. Maybe it is even buried in the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Report. American ingenuity is strong. We are a diverse and resilient people. When we work together, there is almost nothing we cannot overcome.
I hope your family is safe and strong as we head into the back half of this challenging year. Let us commit to listening more. Let us work together, always with an eye on the common good, so we may emerge from our challenges stronger than when we started.