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Artist: Aniekan Udofia | Good Hope Road, Anacostia, Washington, DC

Artist: Aniekan Udofia | Good Hope Road, Anacostia, Washington, DC

On A Classroom Discussion of Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July”

A poem by Joseph Ross, 2016
dedicated to K.A and M.T.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

He sat on the edge
of the classroom, having learned

the safety of edges. Before him,
American Literature, a stone

of a book, lies open to
a lion’s page. Douglass’ questions,

a low growl, quiet for now
but their teeth are poised to sing

an attack, to devour anything
the color of complacency.

Last night as his human eyes
stalked this speech, this student

caged the words in his own notes,
furiously underlining and writing

like the skin of our century
hunting down the answers

to Douglass’ questions that live
to haunt his country.

Today, those questions claw at this
free student, stunned by their teeth.

As the discussion begins, the lion’s
words lunge off the page.

Everyone in the room panics
and scatters into brilliance. Some are

unprepared for the animal precision
of this nineteenth century

man the slave breakers
could not break. But this student’s

pulse thrums with post-slaughter
adrenaline. Never before has he

seen words rise up and fight
like the predators they are.

Read the inspiration for this poem, Frederick Douglass’s Independence Day Speech at Rochester (5 July 1852). It can be found on the website.

Joseph Ross is the author of three books of poetry: Ache (forthcoming 2017), Gospel of Dust (2013), and Meeting Bone Man (2012). His poetry has appeared in a wide variety of publications including The Los Angeles Times, Poet Lore, Tidal Basin Review, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and Sojourners. He recently served as the 23rd Poet-in-Residence for the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, just outside Washington, D.C. He teaches English and Creative Writing at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C. and writes regularly at Follow on twitter @JosephRoss27.