When I was a kid, the Fourth of July was nothing but a chance to celebrate my country. Every year, my mom bought me an Old Navy t-shirt printed with an American flag. My cousins and I danced in our grandma’s backyard and sang songs we’d made up about fireworks. Sometimes we stood in the driveway and waved sparklers in the air.
It was fun. I was a privileged little kid.
In school, I read historical fiction about the Pilgrims, the transcontinental railroad, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. My teachers gave lessons about the 13 original colonies, the three branches of the U.S. government, and the North’s victory in the Civil War. We read “I Have a Dream” aloud, and I thought that I understood the civil rights movement. I printed out a few excerpts from the speech and taped them to my bedroom wall.
When I was 10, my uncle got married in Dallas and our entire family spent a few days together in Texas. As the oldest grandchild, I was allowed to visit the museum dedicated to the JFK assassination. I remember crossing the street outside the building and reaching down to touch the “X” painted on the road, the spot where Kennedy had been shot in his motorcade.
It was all so simple. U.S. history consisted of lots of good guys who were occasionally threatened by bad guys — sometimes from within our own country, sometimes from without. But, in the end, the good guys always won.
Over time, I learned about the ugly side of U.S. history, too — the sticky spots that no one really wants to discuss with kids: Watergate, internment camps for Japanese-Americans, fire hoses and weapons turned on peaceful protesters.
Now, as an adult, I have to stop and ask myself what I’m celebrating on the Fourth of July.
There’s a lot that I don’t like about this country. ICE agents and border patrol officers who separate families. Leaders who shouldn’t be in office. Lawmakers who are too afraid of losing political support to tighten gun laws. Racism. Sexism. Homophobia.
But there is a lot that I do like. And there is a lot that I love.
I love our public lands. I love our recent, ongoing conversations about sexual assault and mental health. I love our teenagers who spearhead movements to bring about the changes they know we need to make.
Not long ago, on a trip to New York City, I visited the September 11 Memorial. My mind flashed back to the day when my second-grade teacher wheeled a TV into our classroom and told us that there had been a major attack on our country. When I went home from school that day, my mom was watching the news too, while my six-month-old brother scooted across the carpet.
At the memorial, everyone was silent. People of all ages, races, and nationalities stood there, paying their respects to the thousands who lost their lives that day in 2001. You could feel something in the air, a kind of catharsis — an acknowledgment that something bad had happened, a grief for the lives that had been lost. But still, there was a united resilience.
I hope that, someday, our entire country will feel that way. I hope that we can live together peacefully and respectfully, that we can all have the same opportunities, that we can dedicate our lives to becoming good people and serving the ones who need a boost.
It’s going to take a lot of work. It probably won’t happen in my lifetime, but that’s no excuse for not trying. I know my country’s strengths and weaknesses, and wherever I go in the world, I want to be an ambassador for its goodness and inclusiveness. No matter which borders I cross, I will respect those around me, regardless of whether or not their backgrounds and opinions are the same as mine.
So, on July 4, 2018, I’m going to celebrate the efforts of all the good people who are willing to work toward something better. And then I’m going to do what I can to help — when I’m home and when I’m traveling, too.
Header image by Kenrick Mills