The Common Good

Memory, Identity, and the Fourth of July

The Fourth of July was one of my favorite holidays growing up. Every year dad would hang the flag in front of our house, right next to the front door. Family and friends would come over. People would mill through the house with paper plates in hand. The smells of baked beans, grilled corn on the cob, grilled hot dogs, homemade grilled burgers, and sauerkraut scented the air. Families, couples, and friends planted themselves at tables and on folding chairs on the patio or in the backyard. The kids did cannonballs and swan dives into the pool as our dogs barked, chasing the sounds of the splashes and the laughter.

When evening came, everyone would pile into their minivans and cars and we would drive 15 minutes into Cape May, N.J., where we would hunt for consecutive parking spots along the beach. Once settled, we’d break out the popsicles and watch the fireworks with a crowd of thousands late into the night.

Years later, in college, I got to watch the Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks show over the New York City East River. Perched with friends on the rooftop of a tall apartment building on Roosevelt Island, we looked out over the harbor full of boats and watched fireworks flare overhead.

My hand drifted to my heart and I stood starry-eyed and grateful to be an American as the orchestra played the Star Spangled Banner. Lights exploded overhead and memories of scenes I never witnessed flashed through my mind: “bombs bursting in air, giving proof through the night, that our flag was still there!”  Hand planted on heart, tears rolled down my face as I thanked those warriors for my freedom — as I thanked them for the freedom that allows 300 million to stand free on this land today.

I remember thinking: “I love the USA.”

Those memories are among the most beautiful of my entire life. They were not moments from a book or a movie or a Rockwell painting. They were lived reality. But, in a sense, while not fiction, they were forged from a powerful collective narrative — a national meta-narrative.

Every 4th of July, our collective story pushes to the fore all that is good and beautiful within our history; the moments of bravery, the moments of brotherhood where men fought side by side, the moments of sisterhood where women sewed stars and stripes together to wave overhead on the battlefield, the moments of selfless abandon for the sake of freedom.

These good and beautiful moments feed our collective memory of ourselves. Memory feeds our identity: We are the brave ones. We are the band of brothers. We are committed to one another. We are the ones who would die for the sake of our neighbors’ freedom. We are exceptional.

But there are other moments, before and after the Revolution, that we mutually agree to forget in order to plant hands to hearts and let tears fall on the fourth day of the seventh month every year.

We must forget the way the Wampanoag Nation welcomed and cared for the newcomers at Plymouth. We must erase the memory of massacres, stolen land, and near extinction of the first nations that followed.

We must forget the Slave Laws, which incrementally transformed black humanity into a profitable commodity, first in Virginia, then Maryland, then South Carolina, then throughout the northern and southern states.

We must erase the memory of the thousands of Cherokees who died on their Trail of Tears, and the Sand Creek Massacre, and the mission schools, the reservations, the alcohol, and the outlawing of sacred songs and dances.

And to sing “God Bless America, land that I love,” without reservation or the slightest provocation of conscience, we must overlook the fact that, in the land of the free, the Thirteen, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Nineteenth Amendments, which outlaw slavery, grant citizenship, and guarantee the right to vote to all, respectively, each barely passed.

And to pledge absolute allegiance to the flag, we must diminish the crimes committed under the power of that flag. We must dismiss Jim Crow laws, and the failure to pass anti-lynching laws, and Operation Ajax , and the Vietnam “conflict,” and the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment, and the passage of Proposition 187 and 209 and Arizona’s SB1070 and Alabama’s HB56. And we must close our eyes and stop our ears when Michelle Alexander reveals that black male citizens are facing a new foe in the 21st century, The New Jim Crow (i.e., mass incarceration). For all of these things happened and are happening under the protective cover of American flags wafting in winds above state houses, court houses, and the U.S. Capitol.

Freedom is not a given in the United States of America. From the very beginning, there have been people and groups and forces among us that have fought to limit, restrict, and remove freedoms from great percentages of Americans. And from the very beginning there have been people of principle, conscience, and faith who have risen to the call of the biblical narrative. These faithful believed in the biblical dream: that the captives would go free (Isaiah 61), that foreigners would be treated as citizens (Leviticus 19:33-34), that the land would be healed (2 Chronicles 7:14), that debts would be forgiven (Matthew 6:9-13), that men, women, and peoples of every tribe and ethnicity would be equal under the law of God (Galatians 3:28).

Since the beginning, these patriots of the Kingdom of God have challenged the hegemony of the lived American status quo ever pressing our nation toward an ever more perfect union.

Therefore, this Fourth of July I will watch fireworks. I will shed a tear or two. But, memories of ramparts, bombs, and flags will have nothing to do with it. My tears will flow prompted by memories of the faithful who bled and died so that I, an African-American, Cherokee and Chickasaw, Puerto Rican, Jamaican, French and British Guyanese, Jewish, Dutch, and English American — so that I may stand free.

Thank you, saints. Thank you for believing God’s dream.

Lisa Sharon Harper is Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners and a member of Emerging Voices

Image: 4th of July fireworks, artcphotos / Shutterstock.com

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