Should We Celebrate Independence Day When So Many Still Are Not Free?
Every summer, my mom loves to tell me the same story about how hard she tried to squeeze her legs together all those years ago on a hot July day in Los Angeles, praying that I could wait just two more days to emerge into the world. She wanted me to be born on the bicentennial and was toying with the idea of naming me Liberty.
But her plans did not work out the way she had hoped. I was born two days before the bicentennial and she changed her mind about Liberty — she knew everyone would call me Libby and she didn’t think that name fit the serious little creature that she sensed I was.
Despite the botched timeline and the name change, I grew up feeling intensely defined by my relationship with my country. Family members always bought me kitschy items decorated with the stars and stripes as birthday presents. And despite the copious amounts of summer birthdays in my family, I was, until the age of 30, the only person born in July and so my birthday was always celebrated at the 4th of July party with streamers, confetti, and fireworks.
As I got older, I became obsessed with the American Revolution (and the echoing French Revolution across the ocean). I also found myself enamored with the philosophical musings of our early founders, particularly Benjamin Franklin.
For a long time, even when I became a teenager and the rose-colored glasses of childhood had fallen off, revealing the weaknesses of this country when I’d only previously seen the strengths, I felt a deep sense of patriotism and pride in the early ideals and philosophies that had shaped the birth of this nation. I wore a t-shirt with an American flag on it every July 4th, throughout my twenties, and loved to yell, “Don’t tread on me!”
But over time, my feelings changed...
What does it mean to be an American?
I learned the whitewashed definitions of “American” from my upbringing — and in fact, my own family illustrated them. There are the Americans who have been here since the “beginning,” like my maternal grandmother’s ancestors, who came here from Wales and Ireland in the 1700s. They fought in the Revolutionary War. They fought in the Civil War (on both sides). They fought in both world wars. That side of the family always said they were “true Americans to the core,” witnessing and shaping this country’s evolution.
Then there are the Americans who are more recent additions to the “family,” like my father’s parents. My grandfather and his parents and siblings came here from Denmark in the 20s, for reasons he never revealed.
You could say my paternal grandmother is the quintessential American, born impoverished in Belfast, working in a linen factory by the age of 13, lying flat on the floor of the bus on her way home when violence broke out in the streets and people pulled their guns on one another. Her parents believed America was, indeed, the land of opportunity, and they arrived on Ellis Island in the early 20s, where, after being inspected and examined, the attendant told my great-grandmother that her children were remarkably clean and well-mannered, which, according to family lore, was one of the proudest moments of her life: America approved of her and her family.
My dad’s parents rarely talked about their pre-American lives. My grandfather, though active in the Danish community, never spoke his native tongue, never taught us about his culture. My grandmother seemed embarrassed by hers. They fully assimilated and even now, it’s odd for me to think that they weren’t born and raised here. They were as American as…well, you know.
I was a good little patriot for a long time. I believed in what this country supposedly stood for. I let it forgive itself for the atrocities it committed against so many without it taking any actual responsibility for its transgressions or making any kind of reparations. I let it keep sweeping its wrongdoings under the rug, acknowledging them only as “lessons we learned.”
But over time, there were things happening that I couldn’t keep ignoring.
For instance, everyone in my local school districts had to recite the pledge of allegiance every day — a pledge that’s notably not just to this country, but to Christianity, as well — and when non-Christians opted out, it would cause serious repercussions. But wait…isn’t this country supposed to honor its citizens’ freedom of religion?
White, Christian men were elected to office over and over again. I became so disheartened that there were so few women representatives and even less Black, Brown, and Indigenous representatives. And as such, our laws never seemed to evolve much. There was still an insistence that we do things their way — they got to (and still get to) decide what a woman should do with her body, how Black people should behave, and how we should commodify (and subsequently destroy) the environment.
It seemed that we, as a nation, were more committed to war, domination, and profit than anything else. That no, we were not actually interested in equality or anti-racism or doing the right thing.
One day, I started seeing America as a monument to the white status quo. And I was not at all proud of that.
I don’t really celebrate the 4th of July anymore, except as an excuse to get together with family members. This year, I feel more disillusioned about this day than ever. Can we stand here and honor “American values” in this moment, when we can so clearly see that our values are dangerously skewed? When we can so clearly see that this America is either killing or erasing the people that don’t fit into its carefully-constructed, white-centric narrative?
I don’t feel so “American to the core” anymore, regardless of my birthday, the name I almost had, my grandmother’s long roots here, or my father’s immigrant parents’ history. Because there was a land here before all of that, people here before all of that, traditions here that outdate my Welsh ancestors’ arrival.
You can hear the echo of that land, those people, everywhere. In the names with which we are so familiar (Manhattan, Chicago, Seattle, Malibu). In design, in cuisine, in wartime strategies that influenced the fate of the entire world. But do we, modern-day white Americans, notice this? Have we taken the time to understand and respect this?
And who actually built this country? The white men that we study in school? Sure, they had all that time to argue and debate and philosophize because the labor of building their free nation was performed by their slaves. Hundreds of years later, their descendants are still fighting for the simple sovereignty over their own bodies and lives, while white male politicians sit in their leather chairs behind their mahogany desks arguing for the right to continue honoring the white men we’ve chosen to canonize.
Is that what we’re supposed to be celebrating today?
The definition of patriotism seems to have evolved over the years. As far as I can tell, now it means someone who unfailingly follows the lead of our white, male, Christian leaders.
If you do not support the massive amount of tax dollars poured into our warmongering defense department, you’re anti-American. If you agree that Black lives matter, you’re failing to acknowledge how far this country has come. If you don’t want to recite a pledge that demands allegiance not just to your country but to Christianity, you aren’t respecting other people’s right to religious freedom. And if you don’t want to celebrate the 4th of July, if you’re really so unhappy with your country…you should just leave.
The truth is, I am so unhappy with my country. I am not proud to say I am an American. I am not proud of my profit- and power-obsessed government. I am not proud to live in a country that elected a racist sexual predator into the highest government office, a country that throws little children into cages at our southern border, a country that doesn’t have any respect for the land or the people that existed here before we did, a country that repeatedly demonstrates such disrespect for Black lives.
I don’t expect things to be perfect here. I don’t expect everyone to agree. But I feel sick over the cultural climate in which we currently live.
I don’t care about white, male, Christian America anymore. It’s had its voice, its power, its turn for the past 244 years. I want more. I want what was promised to us. The land of the free. Liberty and justice for all.
I want to know pre-America America. I want to know female America. Black America. Brown America. Indigenous America.
I want to know free America and see it realized for all those who still are not free.
Where is that America?
So what does it mean to be an American?
To me, it means looking beneath the story we wrote over the original text. It means telling more of the story than just what happened to the white colonists and the way they shaped this nation. It means acknowledging that there is so much more to this story that deserves to be told.
It means asking why the open arms of Lady Liberty will not welcome you if you are from “the wrong side of the wall.” It means asking why the rights of a pipeline are more important than the rights of Indigenous people. It means asking why a man can’t go jogging in his own neighborhood without being killed just because of the color of his skin. It means asking why that same color of skin can also get you killed while you sleep in your own bed, and why being both Black and a woman absolves the system from seeking justice for your death.
These are the things I wish more of us were pondering today, instead of celebrating our freedom to congregate in large groups, without wearing masks in the midst of a pandemic. Instead of grilling burgers and setting off fireworks.
Why are we celebrating when we know not everyone is free?
© Yael Wolfe 2020
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