This past week we engaged in the wild paroxysms of fireworks and barbecue and sheer unadulterated America that we call celebrating the Fourth of July. For most it was, as it always is, a carefree and joyful day, one consumed by food and fireworks and an almost overwhelming patriotism. On the television you could, at any point in time, find ceaseless interviews with people rhapsodizing about their life-changing experiences in america or TV hosts proclaiming how “awesome” upcoming fireworks demonstrations were going to be. And then, from about nine o’clock at night until god only knows what hour in the morning, the sky was lit by fire. It was a fun, carefree day and, as I always have, I enjoyed it immensely.
However, in the midst of this outpouring of unconditional support and affection and fireworks, I found myself returning every so often a tradition I participated in a few times over the summer at book camp (yes, I went to book camp as a kid, is anyone here surprised?). Every year I spent the fourth of July at camp, and we celebrated the holiday with, as one might expect, two special readings. The first, unsurprisingly, was the declaration of independence, but the second is the one that truly had an impact on me as a young boy: an essay written by Frederick Douglass entitled “What, To A Slave, Is The Fourth Of July?” In it, Douglass rages at the injustice and hypocrisy of a nation that keeps so many in bondage celebrating “Independence Day” without ever questioning its own economic practices.
I think it’s important I return to that piece every year on the day this country celebrates patriotism most fervently to remind myself that not everyone can feel such an uncomplicated relationship with America. It’s a lesson we seem to forget often, vilifying those who dare to share how their relationship with the United States is more strained than our own. Kneeling during the national anthem? Finding it hard to be proud of The United States? Arguing that it has a legacy of oppression? These are all things that have been cause for verbal abuse from other Americans, even as they are also all completely legitimate responses to the question “how do you feel about America?”
The simple fact of it is that there are so many people in this very country that find it much harder to love home than I do, or whose love is tempered by past and present wrongs. We may find it hard to understand this relationship since it is not our own, but becasue of this we should not expect their love for this country to be the same as our own. For me, the Fourth of July is a simple holiday, one of food and fireworks and fun. But my family was never enslaved, slaughtered, colonized, or displaced or by America. Many people’s were, and how could I expect them to feel the same way about patriotism or this country or the Fourth of July as I do?
With excitement and optimism,