Growing up, I thought the Fourth of July was a sweet, soulful holiday. My memories of it are mostly fond. With my mother, I’d shop for a matching red, white, and blue top-and-bottom set and new jelly sandals. There was a barbecue every year a few streets over from our home in Memphis, at my uncle’s baby blue-shuttered house. It started in the afternoon and went on until late into the night, when the lightning bugs came out. While my cousins and I played with gold sparklers, I could hear my mother’s laughter grow higher pitched and louder as the music changed to slower cuts, the kind that dragged.
The first year I got to see the city’s official fireworks show, in a park overlooking the Mississippi River, my older sister and brother must have been on break from college. The three of us headed there around dusk. My new jelly sandals were yellow and let my big toes stick out.
We walked across a wide lawn down on Mud Island, a man-made peninsula between the Mississippi and Wolf Rivers that had opened for public recreation in 1982. Three miles north of Mud Island is another site for public recreation, Tom Lee Park, named for the African American riverboat worker who saved the lives of 32 white passengers in 1925 when the M.E. Norman steamboat capsized. He’d witnessed the accident in his small boat and dove into the water, making 5 trips. The town erected a statue in his honor that called him “a worthy Negro,” and as payment, he was given a sanitation worker job and a house in the Klondike neighborhood of North Memphis.
My mother grew up in North Memphis, close to Klondike, in the 1950s and 1960s. She remembers the city’s amenities as contested space — its colored-only days at the zoo, the public library, the public pool.
That summer I was with my siblings — walking across a lawn to Mud Island in those yellow jellys, watching the fireflies, anticipation and balmy sweat on my skin — we found ourselves behind a dusty blue pickup truck. Three shirtless white men sat on back of it. One had blond curls and a bottle of what I thought to be beer in his hand. “Hey niggers,” he said to us with a smile, waving, so casually. The truck then picked up speed, and they were gone. My siblings and I continued our walk towards the river.
As long as I’ve been alive, being American has felt just like this. Tense, sweet, fraught and confused. I’ve known in my bones from a young age that our country was held together by a string that could at any moment break. That hate was always around the corner, always bubbling up under the sweetest of our days.
At Broadly, in “How to Celebrate the 4th of July When America Is a Constant Disappointment,” Leila Ettachfini says “racism, sexism, homophobia, the institutionalized manifestations of each of these” have been ’emboldened’ over the last few years, making it more difficult for wider swaths of Americans to ignore. How should we celebrate a holiday that demands a patriotic response given the current circumstances? Ettachfini provides a list of great suggestions, such as writing letters to children still separated from their families at the border, subscribing to an independent press outlet, bringing petitions to gatherings, or collecting donations for “a cause that our government and/or other American institutions have abandoned or actively worked against, like the Flint, Michigan water crisis or abortion access.”
I’d add that reading the words of people who have made it their life’s work to understand the American conundrum, who clarify and re-inscribe citizenship, democracy, and freedom, can also be a balm in these times.
1. “A Radically Woke and Deeply Conservative Commencement Address.” (Conor Friedersdorf, Atlantic, June 2018)
Friedersdorf writes up the commencement address American classicist Danielle Allen gave at Pomona College last month, in which she offered a close reading of the Declaration of Independence. Allen is careful to note the action encoded in its sentences. “It’s not just about individual rights — about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — it moves from those rights to the notion that government is something that we build together to secure our safety and happiness.”
2. “When the Fourth of July Was a Black Holiday.” (Ethan J. Kytle & Blain Roberts, Atlantic, July 2018)
After emancipation, many African Americans celebrated Independence Day without ambiguity.
From Washington, D.C., to Mobile, Alabama, they gathered together to watch fireworks and listen to orators recite the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of Independence, and the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery when it was ratified in late 1865.
…The most extraordinary festivities were held in Charleston, South Carolina, the majority-black city where Southern secession and the Civil War had begun. At the 1865 commemoration in Charleston, one speaker noted the altered meaning of the holiday for black Americans, who could at last “bask in the sunshine of liberty.”
The martial displays at this and subsequent celebrations underscored his point. Each year, thousands of black South Carolinians lined up early to watch African American militia companies march through city streets. Led by mounted officers, some of whom were ex-slaves, these black companies were often named for abolitionists and other black heroes. The 1876 Fourth of July parade included the Lincoln Rifle Guard, the Attucks Light Infantry, the Douglass Light Infantry, and the Garrison Light Infantry.
3. “A Great Escape, A Dwindling Legacy.” (Isabel Wilkerson, New York Times, February 1998)
Isabel Wilkerson’s travel piece on Bronzeville, the historic neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago that she calls “ground zero” of the Great Migration of blacks out of the South, is a reminder that the movement of migrants has made much of what we hold dear possible.
In South Side blues joints in the 1940’s, the height of the exodus, migrants like Muddy Waters churned out gut-bucket blues from Mississippi, down-home folk music that grew worldlier in the big city. A row of recording studios, perhaps the most famous of which was Chess Records, sprang up along Michigan Avenue to capture the music and send it across the world.Newsletter Sign Up
The former nightclub owners Phil and Leonard Chess sent their right-hand man, Willie Dixon, a blues bassist from Mississippi who wrote most of the label’s hits, to scout talent in the streets of Bronzeville. Bo Diddley was one of the blues men Dixon found. During the glory days of the 1950’s and 1960’s, he and Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Etta James and many others passed through the studio, belting out the blues with nightclub realism in an echo chamber in the basement. Eventually young musicians like Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton heard the music and drew inspiration. The Rolling Stones, who took their name from a Muddy Waters song, made their first American recording at Chess in 1964.
4. “The Border and the American Imagination.” (Michelle García, The Baffler, July 2018)
García traces a history of the current “immigration crisis,” including how we talk about it.
The horror on the border is described as an “immigration crisis,” the violence seemingly the consequence of migrants’ presence. “Immigration crisis” frames the violent reaction—the armed troops sent to the border, the unarmed Guatemalan woman shot in the head by a U.S. Border Patrol agent, the psychological torture of children. But “immigration crisis” ignores the fact that fighting Mexicans (or their easy substitutes, such as Central Americans) was essential to the construction of the United States, its identity the culture of violence it celebrates.
5. “Your Patriotism isn’t Love. It’s Blindness.” (Abraham A. Joven, The Rumpus, July 2017)
Joven encourages us to not look away.
Love, you see, looks unflinchingly into the morass and calls on hope. It does not disavow the wreckage or avoid it. True love is a wise change agent that leans on the better angels without naivety.