Face-to-Face: Frederick Douglass portrait

Web Video Text Tracks Format (WebVTT)


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Shoshi Weiss: Alright, hey, everyone. My name is Shoshi Weiss. I am a park ranger at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, which is his historic home, it's here in D.C. in Anacostia, and if you have never been to visit us, I invite you to do so.

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Shoshi Weiss: Um, the site is free, open to the public seven days a week, and we do tours of his home every day. And we're actually celebrating his birthday, 192nd, uh, the 14th, uh, the Sunday after next, and this year our theme is Frederick Douglass' connection to Women's Rights Movement because this is the 90th anniversary of women's suffrage which was one of Frederick Douglass' major causes so if you want more information about that event we actually have little cards here for you. So we invite you to come join us on the 14th.

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Shoshi Weiss: And tonight, we're talking about this portrait right here, which was completed in about 1844, so Frederick Douglass would have been about 26 years old at that time. And he had escaped from slavery when he was about 20. He made his way up North. And so this period when the portrait was painted, it's that time when he's just beginning to gain his reputation as one of the most brilliant and eloquent abolitionist orators.

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Shoshi Weiss: And one year later, in 1845, he would publish his narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass. And that's still recognized today as one of the most powerful autobiographies in American history. He laid bare the horrors of slavery, and he took America to task for perpetuating that institution. And if this portrait looks familiar to you, it was actually used as the basis for the frontispiece in the narrative. So that's what that illustration was based off of so the expression probably looks familiar.

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Shoshi Weiss: But this portrait itself is actually, it's more than just a portrait of a famous American, Frederick Douglass himself was very conscious of the power of portraiture, of its ability to communicate both good and evil, and part of that was a response to the way that African Americans were often portrayed in the visual media at that time. Often times what Americans saw of African Americans in the newspaper and that sort of thing were political cartoons, and other images that were basically exaggerated racist stereotypes. And Frederick Douglass himself said in 1849 that an African American could never have an impartial portrait at the hands of a white artist because he felt that white artists had internalized these stereotypes too much so he himself he actually preferred photographic portraits because he felt that it was harder to alter them. You'd get a much better likeness.

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Shoshi Weiss: And another way that Americans would often see images of African Americans in the media was abolitionist propaganda from the abolitionist movement trying to end slavery, and one image that you've probably seen before, it's that seal with the kneeling slave and it says "am I not a man and a brother?" that was basically adopted by the abolitionist movement and they put it on all their pamphlets, they put it on cups and plates, they sold it, trying to raise sentiment against slavery. And although Frederick Douglass was very involved in the abolitionist movement, that was his main cause, he did have a problem with that beseeching pose of the slave. If you take a look at this portrait, he's not beseeching anyone; he's not supplicating anyone. This is the image of a man who is taking America to task and challenging America to stand up to its democratic ideals.

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Shoshi Weiss: And this portrait is actually, in that way, it's very similar to another famous abolitionist image which you might have seen of Cinque from the Amistad. There was actually a movie made about the Amistad in the nineties. So that was, um, a group of west Africans who were kidnapped by a Spanish slaveship, and they took over the ship. They were able to control the ship but then the U.S. Navy intervened and brought them to Connecticut and they were actually put on trial. And the leader of that group, his name was Cinque. An abolitionist named Robert Purvis commissioned a portrait of him. And this portrait of Cinque, he's wearing a toga, like a classical garment, and he's holding a staff, and he has the same sort of gaze, gazing off into the distance, and it caused a huge stir. Frederick Douglass actually has an image of Cinque hanging in his home.

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Shoshi Weiss: But one editorial about that image said that it would strike fear into the hearts of any slaveholder. So you can get a sense that a portrait like this might have been profoundly unsettling to a white American at that time. They were not used to seeing African Americans portrayed in this way. And Frederick Douglass actually articulated how he felt about portraiture here in D.C. in a speech in 1873. Because it wasn't just his image that he was concerned with; he felt that images of inspiring people have the power to help you to remember what you're doing with your life. If you come to visit us at the historic site, you'll see that the walls of his home are covered in portraits of other activists, President Lincoln, all sorts of people that he admired, and you'll see their images all over the home. [00:04:45}
Shoshi Weiss: So the speech that he gave, it was actually because the Sumner School here in D.C., it was named after the abolitionist Charles Sumner and it was opened as a school for African American children. And the school board has originally set aside $500 to purchase the portrait of Charles Sumner the abolitionist, and then a later school board went back and revoked that decision. And this caused a furor, and a meeting of 300 people convened on the issue, Frederick Douglass was there, and he was asked to speak; and he stood up and he told the audience that this portrait of Sumner wouldn't just be a pretty picture on the wall. He said that it would have the power to inspire these students and that it was important that the community remember that, and that they put up this picture because he said that it could be said that a picture is a very small thing, but that that would be a great mistake. He said that the portrait of Sumner would stand for all the grand and all commanding ideas that have given shape to our national identity,

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Shoshi Weiss: and I would say that you could say the same thing about this portrait of Frederick Douglass that we have hanging here. And it is quite fitting that we do have a portrait of Frederick Douglass hanging here in the national portrait gallery because his image here can continue to inspire and challenge us to live up to his vision of a more equal and inclusive America. And so that's my little speech, but if you have any questions, any discussion, that's what we're here for.

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{SPEAKER name=unidentified name} How about the painter?

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Shoshi Weiss: The painter? It's an unidentified artist. I looked, I couldn't (stutters)I mean, I don't know if you know more about it but I don't know. I don't know.

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{SPEAKER name=unidentified speaker} We don't know, yeah.

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Shoshi Weiss: Yeah, but I am assuming that Frederick Douglass would have approved this particular image because it has the expression that he was always going for in his portraits. He got mad whenever he was depicted having to amiable or kindly of an expression, because his goal, he said it himself was to agitate, was to help people think about what they were doing and to challenge what was going on, so he didn't want to be looking to friendly in his pictures. He wanted to be looking challenging and determined.

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{SPEAKER name=unidentified speaker} Where did it hang before?

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Shoshi Weiss: This particular picture?

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{SPEAKER name=unidentified speaker} Yeah, where did it come from--

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[[Inaudibile Murmur between the crowd]]

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Uknown Speaker: How to power concedes nothing without the man. Never will and never will. So go for it. And he talks about you cannot have lightning without the thunder.

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Unknown Spekaer2: Would you say he's a freeman generally speaking a shrewd or focused manager of his image? You mention that he liked to be portrayed smiling.

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Shoshi Weiss: Yes, he was, uh, that one of the reasons why he liked photographs. Because he was able to pose himself to arrange his expressions the way he wanted. And he did have certain images that, of himself, that he liked the best one. The famous ones of his face and profile. When he's older, kind of looking off in the distance. So we actually have that image at the home. But he was very careful about that because he said himself that the picture is part of the message. Like the frontispiece illustration in his narrative, that's part of the story. People need to know they're not just reading any story about any escaped slave. It's a story about one man. It's a story about Frederick Douglass.

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Unknown Spekaer2: Do you know why he choose to, uh, move to Anacostia when he did? Why there?

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Shoshi Weiss: So, he had moved, he was living, after he escaped slavery, he was living in upstate New York for long while. And then in 1872, his house in Rochester burned down, so he moved to the D.C area because he was involved in the new national area, a newspaper in the city, and then he moved out to Anacostia about 5 years later in 1877. And part of that was just cause he wanted a bigger home, but um...

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{SPEAKER name="Speaker 1] If you go through his house, he doesn't have just portraits up on his house, he also has landscapes. We get this gorgeous beautiful view of the D.C area from the house, so we think maybe he likes landscapes. Also as you talking about here he understands the power of portraiture, because he understands the power of symbols, and he sees himself often as --

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Braden Paynter: So, and so. [[laughs]] I forgot to stand up. Um, he sees himself as a symbol to try and change-help change the country. And to being the man who live in the big house. On the big hill. Overlooking the capital, overlooking the White House. This is probably not lost on him when he buys that house.

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Unknown: But he lived on-in a house on eighth street?
Shoshi Weiss: Yeah. [[crosstalk]]
Braden Paynter: [[crosstalk]]Yes.

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Shoshi Weiss: Eighth street. Yep.[[crosstalk]]
Unknown: [[crosstalk]]Near the capitol.
Shoshi Weiss: That's the first home he moved in. Yeah.[[crosstalk]]
Unknown: [[crosstalk]]First home he moved to.

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Braden Paynter: And at that point he is moving from a very urban area to an area that has housing in it, but is also more rural. At that point. [[crosstalk]]
Shoshi Weiss: [[crosstalk]] Especially at that time. Yeah.

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Unknown: And that became-that was after [[?]]

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Unknown: I think some of his things are still supposed to be there, I am not sure.
Shoshi Weiss: The eighth street house-[[crosstalk]]
Unknown: [[crosstalk]]The one who bought the building supposed to be there?

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Shoshi Weiss: Yeah. It is run by a private organization. But they just moved his belongings there.

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Unknown: The portrait I am most familiar with is taken at an older age with a lot of white hair. Where is that? Where can you see the original?

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Shoshi Weiss: There's several of him when he was older, we have two of them at this site.
Unknown: Is it this one here?
Shoshi Weiss: Yeah. It's that one with the other women's right activist.

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Unknown: And what's going on in this one?

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Braden Paynter: It's his uh, it's his second wife Helen Pitts, is the lady. Oh, I am sorry. If anybody would like to see some of these. It is a picture. For the folks listening online of uh, Mr. Douglass sitting with two women. One is his second wife Helen Pitts who was quite the activist as well. She is a writer and speaker and a thinker as well. And it is actually her sister as well. It is the two of them sitting together. The three of them, I am sorry. Three of them.

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Unknown: And where was it taken? Was this picture taken on Cedar hill or?
Braden Paynter: We don't know. We don't know.[[crosstalk]]
Unknown: [[crosstalk]]Or in a studio? Most likely in a studio.[[crosstalk]]
Braden Paynter: [[crosstalk]]We don't know. We don't know.

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Shoshi Weiss: Yeah. But that is the iconic image of Frederick Douglass with the hair [[laughs]].

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Braden Paynter: Yeah. In other places you will see a lot of Frederick Douglass um, documents and pieces with the vast majority of his papers have been digitized and available online through the Library of Congress. They have a special Frederick Douglass collection online. And then also the univer-the library at Howard University has a very large collection of his effects as well.

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Unknown: He also advised president Lincoln, didn't he?
Shoshi Weiss: Yes. He actually advised President Lincoln three times during the civil war and he advised every subsequent president after that. Up until his death. He was considered, especially after the civil war, he was considered an official leader of the African American community and a spoke person. Yeah. So then they would invite him to speak. Yeah.

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Unknown: Meeting him in person was, I think we only met him once in person though, didn't he? Didn't he only come to the White House only once or the President's house?

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Shoshi Weiss: I am pretty sure three times. Yeah.
Unknown: Three times?

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Shoshi Weiss: Yeah. Lincoln was the one he met with the most. I am pretty sure. Yeah.

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Shoshi Weiss: He was 77.

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Main Speaker: He was approximately 77 years old. We don't know the exact year he was born so it is hard to know the exact year that he died. But his birthdate is coming up on February 14. He always celebrated his birthday on Valentine's Day.

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Crowd Member: Are you doing any programming related to his birthday?
Main Speaker: Yes, we are. Yes, we are.
Shoshi Weiss: Oh ya.

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Main Speaker: It is the 90th anniversary of women's suffrage, a cause that was very dear to Mr. Douglas' heart. Some of the other portraits you see in the house are of Elizabeth Katie Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, two of his good friends. Those are in the house as well. Very committed to the women's rights movement so we'll be celebrating the women's rights movement.

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Main Speaker: We're gonna have a wonderful actor in Fenmore South who's gonna come by and do a presentation called "Why I Became A Women's Rights Man" which is a compilation of a couple of Douglass' speeches. He's a very powerful speaker. We'll have the most recent professor to write a book about the women's rights movement will be speaking, Ms. Sally McMillen. There will be some music and some other things.

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Shoshi Weiss: Children's activities.
Main Speaker: Douglass was a great violinist so we always try to have a violin playing in there somewhere, as well.

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Crowd Member: Are any of his children, I know he had children with his first wife. Did he have any with his second wife as well?
Main Speaker: All his kids are with his first wife. They're all with his first wife.
Crowd Member: And, um, did she die and then he married again?

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Shoshi Weiss: Yes.
Main Speaker: Yes, yes.
Crowd Member: And were there five children?

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Shoshi Weiss: Five children.
Main Speaker: There were five kids, five kids. Four of them lived to be adults, one of them dies when she's, she's very young.
Crowd Member: And does that family continue?
Shoshi Weiss: Mmmhmm.

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Main Speaker: They do. They do. They actually, they actually intermarry with the Booker T. Washington family, if you've heard of him. Uh, so the Booker T. Washington familly and Douglass family actually intermarry, and actually that branch of the family has now started the Douglass Family Foundation, which works very hard to combat modern day slavery. So they're still quite active as a family.

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Shoshi Weiss: Yeah.
Crowd Member: You mentioned, um, Frederick Douglass' stature as sort an, uh, official spokesman for the African American community.
Shoshi Weiss: Uh huh.

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Crowd Member: Were there collaborations or conflicts with other leaders in the community? Were there other people that wanted that chair and had, you know, a [[?]] fight?
Shoshi Weiss: I mean it wasn't. He didn't have an official.

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Crowd Member: I'm just kidding
Shoshi Weiss: But, in terms of conflict.

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Main Speaker: He's perfectly willing to come in to conflict with people who he likes. He actually conflicts with the women's rights movement during reconstruction when the amendments are being passed to end slavery and extend pand the suffrage.

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Speaker 1: The women's right movement thinks this is the movement for universal suffrage. Mr. Douglas is willing to take the step of Universal Male suffrage. He is an advocate for women's suffrage. For universal Suffrage.

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Speaker 1: But he thinks the only thing that your going - that they are going to get at that moment is universal Male suffrage. Thinks once you started get this balling rolling. It's going to keep expanding over time. So he splits with the Women's rights movement at that point. So he is going to um He is gonna - He was willing to come in conflict with folks.

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Speaker 1: He has a pretty unique position, at that moment in history. He is going to be very well known because of the abolition movement. Cause when the abolitionists find him and if they are in a moment when they are looking to really try and become a national organization. And when they get Frederick Douglas, these guys are great at PR and the thing that they want -

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Speaker 1: They are going to absolutely make sure that everybody in the country knows whose Frederick Douglass is, sees Frederick Douglass, and gets into a situation which Frederick Douglass is going to be on stage or under a tree in front of his people.

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Speaker 1: Now Frederick Douglass is the one who takes it from there and carries himself beyond and eventually starts pushing the abolitionist movement. But he is going to have a national renowned that is pretty unlike anybody else's of that time. He is really very well known across the question.

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Crowd Member: Was he the first African American to have a, well, I guess a court of deeds to have a position like that? Was he the first or were there others?

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Speaker 1: We think the first African-American to be elected to a position was John Mercer Langston out in Ohio. He was actually friends with Douglass, he's got a little carved portrait of John Mercer Langston in his house.

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Speaker 2: One interesting, in terms of being challenged. Near the end of his life, Ida Wells-Barnett, the activist most known for against lynching, she was kinda of a pretégé of Frederick Douglass' and she challenged him for not speaking out enough against lynching. And he actually that actually kinda goaded him into becoming more active against that.

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Speaker 2: So he certainly, he did respond to that whenever people raised those kind of issues.

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Speaker 1: He's very interested in the younger generation. Students from Howard are frequently coming over into the house. He works with Ida B. Wells and Paul Laurence Dunbar, with a lot of younger folk. Booker T. Washington comes by the house, several times. Some of our best descriptions of the grounds come from Booker T. Washington.

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Crowd Member: Isn't he... Brooker's right here.

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Speaker 1: Yes! The portrait gallery has done a great job on putting Mr. Washington right around the corner.

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Speaker 3: And later this month the portrait gallery historian Jim Barber is giving a face-to-face talk about Brooker T. Washington. So if yall come back.

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Crowd Member: How was his marriage to the white women he seen?
Speaker 2: [[Laughter]] that was a huge controversy in D.C. I mean neither of their families approved. And her family actually they were staunch abolitionists, but they disowned her for marrying Frederick Douglass.

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Crowd Member: They.. They disowned her?
Speaker 2: Yes. yeah and-
Crowd Member: She had no children of the marriage [

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Speaker 2: Nah, and it was actually when word got out that Frederick Douglass had taken out a marriage license, it was kinda like a little paparazzi carriage case through D.C. with reporters following him trying to figure out who he was marrying, so it was huge news! It was incredibly controversial. Yeah

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Crowd Member: Since you brought that up. I had remember -

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Speaker1: So Okay you can put it to rest. [[Crowd Laughter]]

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Main Speaker: So ... We- What we can say for sure. Is that Mr. Douglas was a big man. He's over six feet tall and over 200 pounds.

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Main Speaker: And - I... Ladies. He's a Good looking guy, right? You know. And he's powerful. and he's also eloquent. He has moved a nation to end slavery.

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Main Speaker: So this guy has got a way with words. So we can say for sure that women like Fredrick Douglas

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Main Speaker: That there's there no doubt that women like Frederick Douglas. What he did in his spare time. That is something that there is debate over. There is debate over that.

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Speaker1: I really don't really want to know. [[Crowd murmur]]

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Speaker2: Well thank you very much for coming. [[Clapping]]