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In a past newsletter, I shared a bit about how important the 4th of July holiday is for me. Having grown up in small-town Michigan, it was the one time a year we really got to see what ‘community’ meant. The entire town would come together for the parade and fireworks over the lower harbor. There were picnics, cookouts, and beach gatherings. At the time, I was barely able to comprehend the magnitude of the holiday.
Independence Day is one of the most significant holidays in the U.S. It’s a day when people come together to celebrate the birth of a nation, marking the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. The 4th of July is not merely a holiday; it is a symbol of America's independence, freedom, and the democratic values that are the foundation of the nation's identity. July 4th is known for those festive celebrations like parades, barbecues, fireworks, and, of course, displaying the flag. These practices remind us of the hard-fought struggle for independence and the founding principles that continue to guide our nation. It is a day to pay tribute to the people who laid their lives on the line for the future of our country and to celebrate the progress and achievements that America has realized over centuries.
Yet, this holiday has become divisive (well, it actually always was, as you can learn from this video). There are often two camps of thought on that divisiveness: you either uncritically glorify American history, or you are critical of it and therefore are believed to lack patriotism. I, however, think there’s so much more to consider. So, let’s do that.
The central divisive issue lies in the interpretation and representation of American history and the perceived exclusivity of patriotism. The 4th of July can be problematic because it tends to gloss over the darker aspects of our country's history. While it is true that the Declaration of Independence was a groundbreaking document that espoused the ideals of freedom and equality, it is also true that these ideals were not initially extended to all the inhabitants of this new nation, and, in some cases, still aren’t. At the time of its signing in 1776, the horrific institution of slavery was prevalent (and existed for nearly 100 more years after!), and indigenous people were being systematically displaced, exterminated, and robbed of their land.
And still today, while we’ve made progress, we have racial inequities that trace back to our origins. So it’s not hard to believe that celebrating the country may be complicated for Black and Indigenous people living with the actual, often untold history. Here are a few articles that explain some perspectives on that complexity: “For Many Black Americans, The Fourth Of July Means Something Other Than Independence” and “As A Black American, I Don't Celebrate The Fourth Of July” and “Why I Still Celebrate the Fourth of July as a Black American.”
Amidst the extreme anti-immigration rhetoric that is common these days, zealous patriotism and the American flag—often displayed by far-right groups—can feel very different to the wide range of immigrants living in the U.S. I recommend these two articles that share thoughtful reflections of what the 4th of July means to a selection of immigrants who were interviewed: “6 immigrants reflect on their complicated relationships with the 4th of July” and “Here’s What Immigrants Think About the Fourth of July.”
We are a country of diverse people with diverse histories and diverse beliefs, so it shouldn’t be too hard to imagine that pride in our country may be complicated for some people. How can the 4th of July be more inclusive, considering that we have both a lot to celebrate and a lot to reckon with? For me, I think the opportunity lies in expanding the narrative of what the holiday represents and how we celebrate it.
July 4th is a perfect opportunity to be open about the entirety of America's history, both its triumphs and its failures. Acknowledging and discussing the reality of the past doesn't have to detract from our country’s many great achievements. Instead, it can create a more nuanced picture to foster empathy and understanding—if we acknowledge and discuss the failures of our past, doesn’t that mean we may not be doomed to repeat them?
It will likely take a lot of time, but we must redefine patriotism in more inclusive terms. Patriotism must not only be about pride in our country but also about recognizing and respecting its diversity. Celebrations must embrace the truthful diversity of American experiences and identities, highlighting the wide variety of contributions to our nation's evolution. Then, public display of patriotic symbols, such as the flag, could instead be seen as an invitation for everyone to celebrate freedom, democracy, and the potential for progress rather than a symbol of division. But we have to consider including other cultural symbols that represent the vast array of humans who participated in our country’s development.
Inclusive celebrations can be community-driven, much like they’ve always been, focusing on shared experiences and values. They could feature cultural performances, exhibits, and public talks that highlight the contributions of diverse communities to this country’s history and culture. Approaching it this way would not only make the 4th more inclusive, but it would also enrich the celebrations, adding depth and meaning to the holiday.
Our education system plays a significant role in shaping perceptions of national holidays. While there is so much unnecessary debate about what is called ‘Critical Race Theory,’ there is no reason to reject uncomfortable truths about our country’s past. Schools could use this particular holiday to educate students about the different facets of our history, including the hardships various communities face. This approach encourages an informed, empathetic form of patriotism.
Public acknowledgment of historical injustices is another important step toward inclusivity. Monuments, public holidays, and remembrance events that honor the victims of historical injustices are visible reminders of the past, encouraging society to acknowledge and learn from our mistakes. By recognizing these painful histories alongside Independence Day, we can ensure that the 4th of July is a celebration not of selective history, but our nation’s journey as a whole.
I’ve always known that the 4th of July was a day of celebration, family, and community. What I was never taught, however, is that it is also a day of reflection. It must also be an opportunity to revel in our freedoms and acknowledge the struggles endured to secure those freedoms and the work that remains to be done. The spirit of the holiday cannot be to glorify a sanitized version of our past but to celebrate the ongoing journey of progress, which involves all of us. With greater understanding, dialogue, and inclusivity, we can transform this holiday into a day that truly represents the collective experience of the American people.
And, also, July 4th is my lovely partner’s birthday. Happy Birthday, Laura. I sure am happy you were born.