Growing up in the Midwest, my family always celebrated Independence Day at the lake, with burgers, fresh sweet corn, and of course, fireworks. The children of immigrants, my parents would often throw in a lesson or two as we waited for the fireworks show about the boundless opportunity availed to us in this land of the free. My dad often retold the stories of American history through the eyes of his parents -- the 20th century “welcoming melting pot” narrative -- which offered safety and opportunity to the tired, poor, and huddled masses like my grandparents who worked hard, lived frugally, and were eventually able to live the (white) American dream of education, home ownership, and freedom from persecution.
Indeed, for both his and my mother’s parents who were Russian Jewish and Armenian, respectively, America was a safe haven from the Russian pogroms, and the Armenian genocide, both of which claimed the lives of all but a few of their ancestors.
But despite their ethnic names, persecuted minority status, and the deep psychological wounding that came with it, my ancestors were relatively privileged by their whiteness. We now know that the melting pot was whitewashed racist code for assimilation, and that the American dream mythos that powered the “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps” trope was -- and still is -- a privilege afforded only to those of us with the access to the systems of power (e.g. white skin).
In 1852, Frederick Douglass gave his famous "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" speech at an event marking the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Rochester, NY. In it he stated:
"The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine, You may rejoice, I must mourn."
This Independence Day must be different.
Instead of grilling meat the planet can’t support, or whooping and hollering at fireworks, or exalting in triumphant stories of an America that never was, I wonder what it would look like to instead take July 4 as a day of reflection, like Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot is intending to do.
What if we spent some time researching the state and local elections where candidates of color need some extra support -- and spend some time and/or money to actually support them? Or what if we read up on the indigenous people who cared for the land under our feet before we got here, placing our hands on the ground and saying a few words of thanks? Perhaps this could become a habit each time we leave the house. Thank you, and I’m sorry -- a daily practice in humility.
What if we observe the miracle of seeds growing into lemons or sunflowers or apple trees, and then reflect on the crucial and circumstantial role of light and water and soil? Or spend some time tracing the origins of the food we eat; who grew it, who harvested, cleaned, shipped, packaged, and stocked it on shelves?
What if we just stopped talking, and stared up at the buck full moon which has witnessed the Earth for over 4 billion years, and just listened?