Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Promise of America

Like many I know, I have mixed feelings anymore about the 4th of July.

That's been true for me since I first visited the Statue of Liberty as a child and watched a short film in the welcome center.  The film featured famous people talking about what the Statue of Liberty meant to them, and it included James Baldwin whose statement is the only one that stayed with me.  He quoted the beginning of the Declaration of Independence and said it was problematic since he hadn't been included in those ideals.  He highlighted that for black people whose families were brought here by force to work as slave labor for others who claimed to believe "all men are created equal" the Statue of Liberty represented only a cruel irony.

It was the first time I truly recognized that symbols of our country flouted as patriotism were painful for many Americans.  It broke my heart that people with as much right to the ideals of America did not feel a part of that dream.  I had a child's love for my country that was uncomplicated.  I had to rethink it.

Our country's history encompasses many dreadful and shameful things.  Too much of that was whitewashed in school when I was young.  There is less of that in my children's education, so they understand better than I did at their ages that there is much about American history that is disturbing and unpleasant.

I asked them this morning on our way to the annual parade how they feel about the 4th of July.  My oldest said she wasn't sure how to feel.  She sees so much happening in our country anymore that is hard to take pride in, that she'd rather think of the holiday as more a celebration of our neighborhood traditions.  My middle child was conflicted because she doesn't want her disgust for the current president to contaminate her ability to enjoy the day.  My youngest doesn't know.  It's hard for him to see the 4th as something other than a candy holiday (and asked why anyone would bother to go to a parade that didn't involve throwing treats into the crowd).

Here's what I told them:  America is a promise.

People are wrong when they think ignoring truths like slavery and the subjugation of native peoples and the denial of rights to women and gays and other minorities is the only way to maintain pride in our country.  It is our astonishing ability for change that makes us special.

The rapid pace of gay rights in this country gives me hope.  Yes, those hard earned rights are under attack in a way that makes me fear for my friends and neighbors, but the amount of gay acceptance in America that has unfolded before my eyes during my own lifetime is incredible.  My children cannot fathom a world where LGBTQ people have to hide and I would trust them to love and stand up for their friends in that community without hesitation.  That's the America I celebrate.

Yes, racism remains a systematic problem in our country that needs to be addressed seriously.  I believe too many of us in America thought we were better than we actually are, and the fallout of the last presidential election revealed ugly truths about our neighbors and ourselves that we are only starting to grapple with.  As educated and empathetic as I strive to be, I am ashamed of how little I understood the experiences of the people of color around me until events of the past few years brought certain things to light.  But it's not nothing that we had a black family in the White House for eight years.  I don't care what side of politics you are on, we should all marvel that in a matter of a few generations we went from black emancipation to a black president.  That's the America I celebrate.

My grandmother would have been 100 this year, and the amount of change she saw in this country in her lifetime is staggering.  When she was born women still couldn't vote.  My mom could still openly be turned down for jobs because she was a woman before I was born.  We still have a long way to go if only recently we are finally able to discuss openly the kinds of harassment women have been made to endure in the workplace and in society, but I have confidence that by the time my children enter the workforce the attitudes about how all people, regardless of gender, are included there will be better.  I may have different hurdles to jump because I am a woman, but I do not feel like I can be held back from my own pursuit of happiness in this country, which compared to the kinds of opportunities my grandmother was limited to when she was growing up, is amazing.  That's the America I celebrate.

Yes, these are difficult times.  There are many days I watch the news and despair.  I wonder about the direction our country is going and worry it doesn't reflect me or my ideals or what I want for my children at all.  But then I was watching The Civil War broadcast on PBS recently and remembered how embroiled in strife and contradiction this country has always been.  This has never been a simple place that even came close to meeting the ideals it set out for itself even at its inception.

And yet, we press forward.  We speak up.  We create the change we want to see.  We find people and communities that do work toward what we believe in.  When I'm frustrated with the back and forth on the news and how unsettled everything is, I remind myself that the constitution isn't a document designed to solve arguments, but a framework for having them.

Peace is not the default--struggle is.  Calm is often a mask over other people's suffering.  These are times of great change and conflict, and I don't know where we will end up, but when I see the kindness in the people directly around me, I do not lose hope.  America can be whatever we want it to be.  I still believe that, even though some days that thought is harder to hold onto than others.  I love my country for coming as far as it has in a relatively short amount of time.  I love that I feel I can make a difference here.  I love that for so many it has provided hope and possibility and I will try to do my part to extend that dream to those who are still made to feel excluded.

America is a promise.  It's just a struggle to keep


  1. Wonderful. (And perfectly articulates many of my own feelings). OK to share this on FB?

  2. Long time reader, first time poster- I love this entry, and plan to share it. Thank you for it!