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"Hamilton" star Daveed Diggs on how Frederick Douglass' Fourth of July speech resonates today

Daveed Diggs on powerful new video
"Hamilton" star Daveed Diggs on new video questioning the meaning of July 4 for Black Americans 06:11

"What, to the American slave, is your Fourth 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."

The striking words spoken by Frederick Douglass on July 5, 1852 were given new life when "Hamilton" star Daveed Diggs spoke in a new video inspired by Douglass' speech, shining a spotlight on the Independence Day holiday that, to many Black Americans, holds a "complicated" meaning.

Diggs said the speech captures "the desire to hold America accountable" — an America currently reckoning with its history of slavery and racism amid a nationwide movement against institutional racism and police brutality. He spoke to "CBS This Morning" co-host Gayle King about the video and the "poignant" ways Douglass' message resonates today, as well as the release of "Hamilton" on Disney+.

Read their conversation below:

Gayle King: Daveed Diggs is well-known for playing founding father Thomas Jefferson in "Hamilton," a performance that earned him a Tony Award. He joins us from Los Angeles to discuss — we'll talk about "Hamilton" in just a second, Daveed, but I cannot get over that video. It is powerful. It is provocative. Your read was perfection. And I think a lot of people are saying America's looking into the mirror these days, and we don't like what we see. So I'm wondering, when you first read those words for the first time, what were your thoughts and your feelings as you were doing it? 

Daveed Diggs: Well, you know, I had the opportunity to play Frederick Douglass for an upcoming piece for Showtime called "The Good Lord Bird," and as part of that performance, I performed excerpts from the Fourth of July — from his "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July" speech. And so I remember the first time I read that speech and how poignant and how contemporary, really, a lot of the points still felt 170 years later… modernizing it, I jumped at the opportunity. And what they came up with was brilliant. 

It really, I think, contextualizes and manages to capture a lot of the feeling of the moment and a lot of the desire to hold America accountable, and to keep those kind of discussions going beyond just the moment that we're in. 

Daveed Diggs asks: “What to My People is the Fourth of July?” by Movement For Black Lives on YouTube

King: You're so right to hold America accountable. Listen, from Frederick Douglass, the speech what it was called, "What to the American Slave is the Fourth of July," he says in part: "A day that reveals to him, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim." I thought, Daveed, those words were so eerie and so sad, with how much they still resonate today with what is happening in this country. 

Diggs: Yeah. I mean, it's over 100 days since Breonna Taylor was murdered. You know, there have been no charges yet. We are constantly confronted with a difference in value of our lives. And so particularly as we reflect on this moment of the Fourth of July and what we're celebrating, this idea of independence — it's complicated, I think, for Americans of color to figure out how we fit into the celebration. 

King: No, for instance, in the video that you narrated it says, "Police parade down streets, proud descendants of the slave patrol."

I've heard that you, too, have had very unpleasant encounters with the police. Would you talk about that? 

Diggs: Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, you'd be hard-pressed to find anybody Black who hasn't to some degree, right? 

Between the ages of 22 and 25, I got pulled over maybe almost 40-something times, never got a ticket. Days before I left Los Angeles to go start performing "Hamilton" at the Public Theater, I got snatched off of my bike by police officers and thrown up against a fence because I fit a description. Yeah, and I have always had — 

King: Fit the description. 

Diggs: So all this to say not — it's not a condemnation of any specific police officer, but of a system that is trained to treat Black lives differently. 

King: Uh-huh. You know, I have to talk about "Hamilton" which is streaming on Disney+ tonight. I can't believe that we have you on this particular day. Because I'm told that you were sent an advanced copy and you didn't watch it — people who would kill to watch it, Daveed, they would kill to watch it. I'm so excited that a lot of people will get to see this for the first time. I'm so psyched about this. 

Diggs: Yeah. Me, too. I have yet to watch it, but now everybody can. It's out and streaming on Disney+, and I think there's a great sense of patriotism that comes along with watching that show. And I think that's important to think about today, especially. You know —

King: Thank you… go ahead. 

Diggs: I was saying James Baldwin said in '55, "I love America more than any other country in the world, and exactly for this reason I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually." 

I've been thinking about that quote a lot as I go into this weekend. 

King: Yeah. It makes a lot of sense to me. I think a lot of people are asking questions that they've never asked before. I also heard you say when you played Jefferson, you have a show stopper — show-stealing scene. I can't wait for people to see that, that you felt very patriotic for the first time when you played that role. 

Congratulations to you, Daveed. This video is knockout. And your performance in "Hamilton," knockout. Thank you for getting up early with us today. Really appreciate it. 

Diggs: Thanks so much. 

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