My fingernails are currently painted with a jaunty silver, white, and blue striped pattern. It’s quite flashy. My eleven-year-old live-in nail technician was very proud of her work.
The nails were a perfect accompaniment to the dangly star earrings, fireworks t-shirt, and red and white striped skirt I was wearing on the fourth of July. I also have red, white, and blue beaded bracelets, but my daughters swiped those to add a little pizzazz to their own Independence Day ensembles.
I love a good theme. We decorate the house for Christmas, of course, but I also put up an Easter tree and have some great Halloween decorations too. Valentine’s Day always requires heart-shaped chocolate chip scones and sparkly red everythings.
You will never convince me that it was a matter of sheer coincidence that my ex-husband asked me out two days after St. Patrick’s Day because my green pigtail wig – plus the green face paint freckles – was nothing if not eye-catching.
I looked the part for the fourth of July. I had the outfit, the sparklers, the blueberry cobbler recipe, and the cute flag plates. Superficially, I was ready to celebrate. Deep down inside, though, it’s a bit more complicated.
The fourth of July isn’t actually my favorite holiday.
Let’s start with the fact that I am very much afraid of backyard fireworks. Beyond being solicitous of my sweet dog’s feelings on the subject, I find the idea of deliberately trying to make things explode in your driveway terrifying. I have slowly made my peace with sparklers. Fountains are quite pretty, and I have no issue with smoke bombs or glow worms (except their distasteful resemblance to dog poop). But anything that shoots into the sky while on fire is right out.
It’s not just the pyrotechnics that make me uncomfortable. I cannot help but notice with unease the disconnect between unbridled displays of patriotism and the realities of the current moment. While we sing songs, wave flags, and generally celebrate our collective national awesomeness, our country leads the world in COVID19 deaths, our communities are reeling from and reckoning with systemic racial injustice, and our president is a bigoted moron.
Woo hoo. Go us.
For all their radical claims and big ideas, our founding fathers (by and large) held racist and sexist ideologies that prevented them from seeing women and people of color as fully human and worthy of inclusion in their grand pronouncements about equality. Our elections are tainted by corporate greed and foreign interference. Our economic model is unsustainably contributing to an ever-widening gap between the super wealthy and everyone else. And for some reason, we can’t all seem to agree that killing the planet is a really big mistake.
Add onto all that the perplexing union of patriotism with religion that is so popular South of the Mason Dixon Line (and elsewhere). When I was an active church-goer, I used to avoid services around Independence Day because I was so uncomfortable with the narrative – woven through prayers, songs, and flags prominently displayed by the altar – that God loves the US of A more than any country on Earth. With all due respect to Irving Berlin, I have my doubts.
Before you get too upset with me, I’m not saying I hate America. It’s a fine place to be (well, except maybe during a poorly-managed pandemic) and I am very aware of the privileges I enjoy as a white, middle-class American.
Maybe the fourth of July isn’t the time for nuanced reflection. But if not then – when? And how do I communicate that nuance to my children who are mostly focused on glow bracelets and bottle rockets?
Maybe we start by acknowledging that countries are made up of people, and that people have flaws. We watched Hamilton last weekend (of course!) and that opened the door for some good conversations. Can we start by acknowledging that our country’s heroes were human and that, when we put them on pedestals, they are bound to eventually fall off?
Can we agree that racism reaches far beyond the hearts and minds of individuals, and that it’s going to take hard work to dismantle the unequal systems our country is founded upon, which advantage whites over all others? Can we stop pretending that the USA has a monopoly on divine affection? Can we acknowledge that putting bigoted morons in charge isn’t the best path forward?
I love our country’s Independence Day traditions of backyard barbecues and community festivities. If we could also add a little introspection to the holiday, that would truly be something to celebrate.