What Is the 4th of July to Me?

The 4th of July, commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America from Britain, has always been fraught with ambivalence for me. On the one hand, it holds many great memories I’ve had with my family over the years and newly created ones. And on the other hand, much of the meaning and representation of this holiday is lies, betrayal, and a reminder of how long and hard we have had to fight for the same freedom granted to White men 244 years ago.

My parents bought a single-family home in the suburbs of San Diego County—quite an achievement for anyone, let alone a Black family—and we moved into it between the end of June and early July 2000. So, even with boxes left to be unpacked, we celebrated our new home, their acquisition of generational wealth, and honestly, just getting that move done, on the 4th of July. Every year after that, my parents threw a big party on the 4th basically as an anniversary to this. There was always good food (and lots of it), drinks, music, dancing, jokes, laughing, games, and in the backyard, you can see 3 or 4 different firework shows from afar. If you were in the area, you knew you could stop by cause we were doing something. Recently, our family’a celebration has moved, but I’ll always remember the 4th as less about thinking about American Independence and more about being together as a family. And this year I’m reminded that they’ve been homeowners for 20 years now.

My cousins back in 2015

When I was 17, a year after we’d moved into our house, I went to work at my fast food job and came home to my family making the preparations for the annual 4th of July party. My mom assigned me something to do and I used it as an opportunity to present my TedTalk on why we shouldn’t be celebrating it anyway. I talked about how we shouldn’t even be celebrating as Black people and how this holiday really didn’t mean anything to us and also how I wasn’t about to be doing this work just to celebrate the White man’s freedom. As I presented my case, she kept doing whatever it was she was doing. Then, she just said, “okay girl…where are those tomatoes I told you to cut?” I moved on and so did the celebration. My mom wasn’t necessarily ignoring the history of what I was saying, but she also wasn’t about to cancel her party. It was complicated.

My mom and L on the 4th last year
Last year with my cousin and his family

And to even further complicate my feelings about the 4th of July, two very personal and significant events—one bad and one of the best, both intensely emotional—are triggered on the 4th. In March of 2001, there was a shooting at my high school. The sound of a gun being shot over and over again is not unlike that of fireworks going off, and in fact, is initially what I thought the sounds was. Every 4th, even though I can logically tell myself they’re fireworks, the visceral fear remains the same. I am terrified every time one goes off randomly. While I was able to largely escape it because of laws where my parents live, when I lived in Wisconsin, I’d hurry home before dark every year, close all my windows and try my best to drown out the sound. I started dreading the 4th of July. It’s honestly one of the most bizarre ass-backwards things we do in the country: claim to celebrate the people who fought for our freedom by making them relive the trauma. But also, (cue big smile) it was during the 4th of July weekend in 2017 that, after a year of trying, we finally conceived our child. So, it carries this sort of reconciliation, this sense of dread but also amazing memories and a time of celebration.

That faithful 4th of July (2017)

And I imagine that’s the case for many Black people, particularly those who have ancestral connections to people who were enslaved nearly 90 years after this so-called declaration of our independence. We know the 4th of July wasn’t really about us when it happened. We also know that, even now, the American dream they’re selling isn’t meant for us. That we aren’t afforded the same freedoms and equality that the declaration so eloquently states. Yet, we get together and we BBQ, cookout, hangout, drink, dance, and celebrate. Why? I’d argue because we’re still here. Even if America as a country doesn’t really seem worth celebrating right now with the increasing cases of COVID-19 ravaging Black communities and violence against Black people continuing to be a problem, we are still here. In fact, I’d argue the reason we’re so upset and we fight so hard is because this country is just as much ours as anyone’s and we want it to reflect that. We’re still building businesses, going to school, raising families, living our dreams…and it’s possible to recognize the wrong doings of a country while still celebrating these successes on a day that most of us have off of work and can spend together. We can still hold on to the memories we have of being together with our families and friends and enjoying food, music, and summer sun—and want that in the future—but still be pissed AF at the conditions of the country. So, Happy 4th of July y’all, celebrate or don’t, but wear a fuckin mask.

Last year (July 4, 2019)

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