It’s July 4th week, folks. I’m excited that my toddler son is finally old enough to actually enjoy fireworks and BBQ and bedtime stories about America’s birthday. I’m excited to get to share the story of how America came to be, the significance of Independence Day in our nation’s history, and all of the reasons why this country is a wonderful and unique place to be. But while I’m teaching him about America’s good qualities, I’m not going to sugarcoat its bad and its ugly. I’ll be spending the 4th of July teaching my kid the hard truths about the United States of America.
It wouldn’t be an accurate story about our nation’s first days without highlighting that Black people were slaves to the first Americans. It wouldn’t be fair to our country’s legacy — and to my son’s developing sense of self — to neglect to mention that the Constitution wasn’t written with women in mind (nor did it consider people of color, including the Native Americans who lived on this land before we decided to claim it as our own).
I am patriotic. I want my son to be a proud American, too, if he so chooses. I am grateful to be born into a time and place where I feel I can fully myself — as a lesbian mom in New York City — and I don’t want my child to take that freedom for granted. But patriotism is about much more than blindly waving my nation’s flag and getting mad at anyone who doesn’t like us, or who says something negative about America.
The “land of the free, home of the brave” takes on a very different meaning if you’re a straight, white, educated Protestant male than if you’re a Muslim woman, a queer Jew, an Apache Indian.
I celebrate the country that has granted me this voice through our First Amendment rights so I that I speak my mind, including to criticize the places where American has failed. I am privileged that this country has gifted me with an education so that I can sharpen my skills and support my family. I am in awe of this beautiful country that has built some of the most diverse cities in the world. There are very few places on the planet where a Muslim Iman and a Rabbi can sit next to each other in peace on the train; where two moms can raise a child in full sight; where a black boy born in the projects can go on to become a billionaire entrepreneur.
America truly is the land of opportunity. I want my son to feel that, and hopefully to get to live that dream.
America is the country that pledged to its people, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and backs it up with Constitutional Amendments that have grown in number with time to extend its reach to corners of the population formerly excluded. It’s the land that erected a great copper statue in its harbor with a powerful poem etched at its base, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
I will teach my son that we are a country that has long opened its arms to help others in need, a reflection in part of what the founders of America faced when they fled religious persecution and the ironclad imperialist rule of England.
But America is also the land of greed. It is a land where lawmakers feel emboldened to act out of selfish fantasy and not in the best interests of all of their constituents. It is a land where big companies have more rights than most people, and executives line their pockets while people below their windows starve. It is a land where we turned away a ship of Jewish children who were sent to ovens to die; a land where we ripped Japanese families from their homes and forced them behind barbed wire; where babies were torn from their parents’ arms and thrown in cages without access to basic care. America is a land where racism runs rampant; where slavery gave way to segregation which gave way to redlining and mass incarceration and police brutality. It is a land where misogyny is lurking in every office, every home, every institution.
It would be a dishonor to America, to posterity and as historic lessons to the next empire poised to rise in our dust, to omit the clear and simple truths of this nation’s ugly past and present. Most of all, on this Fourth of July, it would be a lie to tell my son that we wave our flag free of guilt.
In fact, we can wave the red, white, and blue with genuine pride and celebrate the extraordinary life we’re privileged to live, but we hold that truth to be self-evident that not all men and women (and others) are created equal in this great land. It simply means that my generation, my son’s, and the ones that come after must continue to fight for America to be the truly inclusive place it aspires to be.
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