July Fourth this year comes in the midst of a pandemic, an economic depression, a national reckoning on racism and police brutality and the most divisive presidential campaign in modern history.
We wanted to try to capture this moment, and we knew one essay wouldn’t be enough. So, we opened it up. What follows is a series of mini-essays, written by our contributors and readers. (Be sure, too, to listen to the radio piece that accompanies this post. It features a handful of our regular writers sharing their work.)
If there’s one thing we learned in the process of soliciting and reading these essays, it’s that July Fourth is far more complicated than backyard barbeques and fireworks. That stereotype is white America’s version of Independence Day. But what about all those people for whom the country's founding principles haven't yet been fully realized? For many Black Americans, in particular, this holiday is more complex.
“Independence Day, as some call it, becomes another opportunity to reflect on the value of vigilance, the price we pay for any semblance of freedom,” writes author Jabari Asim in his piece.
What follows aren’t merely reflections about how we celebrate July Fourth, it’s about the existence of the holiday itself and what it says about our “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
-- Cloe and Frannie
Every year, as a Black American, I think about Frederick Douglass's famous speech, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" This summer, the feeling of liberation, citizenship and enfranchisement is particularly stunted. Patriotism for many black people, even black veterans, has always been complicated. America is like a wayward child whom you will always love, but they just can't get themselves together. The only thing different about this year is that for the first time I’ve seen more Black Lives Matter signs than flags. I hope this is the year the prodigal son comes home. — Kellie Carter Jackson, professor of Africana studies at Wellesley College
July Fourth has never been a day that my family observes. We don’t have a cookout, we don’t stick a flag on the front porch. Even in past years when we attended our town’s fireworks display, we’ve watched under the common understanding that our purpose is not to celebrate. We just want to see the bright colors streaming underneath the dark sky. Freedom for black people in the United States has always been tenuous and contentious, and never separate from the realization that our white neighbors might turn against us, as they have in Tulsa, Rosewood, Boston, East Saint Louis. Independence Day, as some call it, becomes another opportunity to reflect on the value of vigilance, the price we pay for any semblance of freedom. Joy is best reserved for other occasions. -- Jabari Asim, author and director of the MFA program in creative writing at Emerson College
The only thing different about this year is that for the first time I’ve seen more Black Lives Matter signs than flags.Kellie Carter Jackson
I’ll be thinking about how fragile the American experiment has been, and remains. Blowing little bombs of colored sparks into the sky is pretty. Eating grilled hot dogs and apple pie — yum! But it all feels kind of trivial compared to what we’re up against in 2020: the normalization of white supremacy, state-sanctioned violence against people of color, the normalizing of mass death by virus, massive income inequality. The point of July Fourth is to celebrate the ideals of this country’s inception. It feels wrong to celebrate unless we’re also willing to face the ways in which we've fallen short of those ideals. We should be working, as individuals and as a nation, to elect leaders who will recognize and work to rectify them. — Steve Almond, author
On July 4, 1976 — the Bicentennial — I was part of a small, ragtag group marching through the steaming, pot-holed streets of working-class Philadelphia chanting, "We’ve Carried the Rich for 200 Years. Let’s Get them Off our Backs!" We were passionate but doctrinaire, loud but ineffectual. We in no way resembled the thousands of Black Lives Matter protestors who, multi-racial in their makeup, insightful in their analysis and savvy in their tactics are demanding, and hopefully ensuring, that we as a nation do not regress to familiar ways. On this Fourth of July, I am thinking about them and the future we, as their elders, are obliged to help them create. This year, in particular, we shouldn’t be congratulating ourselves on our distant independence from King George. Rather, let’s use it to acknowledge and celebrate our interdependence with each other. — Julie Wittes Schlack, author, teacher and market researcher
Blowing little bombs of colored sparks into the sky is pretty ... But it all feels kind of trivial compared to what we’re up against in 2020Steve Almond
I'll be thinking about our two Americas. The lived experience of those with privilege –– by virtue of skin color, bank account, or both –– allows nostalgia for the past. The lived experience of so many others does not. This year’s Fourth of July comes just a little over a month after the murder of George Floyd. The only thing new about that event was that more white Americans than usual took notice this time. As we wave our sparklers this year, will it mark the beginning of our starting to forget? Or will we remember this time, and commit to the work of being in a new place by the next Fourth of July? -- Alastair Moock, Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter
As a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, I find it disheartening to see those who oppose calls for racial justice do so by wrapping themselves in the flag. They insinuate that criticism of police violence is somehow un-American. It's a shallow, wrongheaded understanding of what patriotism is. The purest expression of patriotism is the dedication to forming that more perfect union that our founding documents aspire to. It is precisely the work being done by those agitating for change in our streets. I am reminded of the words of the immortal John Prine, who died from COVID-19, earlier this year. “Your flag decal won't get you into heaven anymore.” Expunging the mortal sin of racism from our nation’s soul is not easy, but it is essential. — Andrew Carleen, former public affairs officer in the U.S. Navy
In 1852, Frederick Douglass was invited to give a speech commemorating the Fourth of July. His audience was sympathetic — abolitionists mostly — but Douglass had no time for niceties. He warned his white listeners that, while slavery persisted, the work of independence was not yet complete. “You have no right,” he said, “to wear out and waste the hard-earned fame of your fathers to cover your indolence.” On this July Fourth, there can be no doubt: The systems of oppression that marked Douglass’s day have shifted, not disappeared. Ask yourself: How can we, the people, dismantle them once and for all? — Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts
On this July Fourth, America finds itself tottering from the body blows of pandemic and racial injustice, both revealing failures to uphold the social contract from which our government institutions derive legitimacy. Why should citizens honor that contract now, when those in power value a stock index — or even a mere $20 bill — more than human life? In this Gilded Age redux, the justification given for inequality is that it enables growth and shared prosperity. The events of 2020 show that the nation needs a new social vision of democracy not yoked to the accumulation of wealth by a select few. — Frederick Hewett, writer and climate activist
I think I’ll wait until next Juneteeth to celebrate. I could never relate to the bunting and the siss-boom-bah of July Fourth. This year, less than ever, given the shredding of the Constitution, which used to be a kind of roadmap to freedom. Juneteenth I understand in my very soul because it’s a lot like Passover. Passover is about getting out of Egypt, getting out of slavery. Every year, Jews relive the Exodus from bondage to freedom. Nobody mentions the ensuing 40 years of wandering in the desert before getting to the promised land, though we all know it’s coming. At my family’s seders, we talk a lot about freedom, remembering nobody is free until everybody is free. We name contemporary plagues: racism, anti-Semitism, climate disaster, mass incarceration, homophobia. Next spring, we’ll add police brutality and COVID-19 and God knows what else. Freedom is never done. We have to water it, watch over it, keep the aphids off. Jews celebrated Passover in concentration camps, remembering there was redemption after slavery, praying they would know redemption and freedom. We remember those Jews at our Seder. Maybe next year, I'll be invited to a Juneteenth party, and listen to the American story of freedom delayed, and freedom denied and freedom marching on. -- Anita Diamant, author
The idea of "unalienable rights" — straight from the Declaration of Independence — is something I can't stop thinking about. There are people in this country who view their right to not wear a mask as being "American." What about the right to health? What about the right to not be infected by someone else? These, too, are our rights as human beings. As a doctor, I spend my life fighting to protect the health of my patients. I think about this every day. — Abraar Karan, internal medicine physician
The fireworks that lit the sky weren’t mine to celebrate just like they weren’t for my ancestors.LaShyra Nolen
My brother was a Vietnam vet who died at the age of 60 from cancer likely caused by agent orange. He loved celebrating July Fourth with family. Fittingly, he passed away on July Fourth, we think so that we will always remember him and always celebrate family and Independence Day, a significant time in our history. Personally, I will be reflecting on and hopeful for again being proud to be an American. — Donna Abelli, Plymouth, Mass.
We have failed one other, and occupy such different realities that we can't even talk about potato salad without politicizing it. This Independence Day, I am thinking how much I long for us to all really be together again. We have lost so much more than we realize. Independence should mean more to us then isolation, ignorance and individuality. It should mean independence of thought and of mind, ability to speak our minds thoughtfully, debate, question and revel in our differences. We are all in this together and we should start acting that way. — Mary, Arlington, Mass.
We have failed one other, and occupy such different realities that we can't even talk about potato salad without politicizing it.Mary, Arlington
I’m a first-generation American immigrant and have done well in fulfilling the American dream. I have also experienced racism and discrimination ever since I realized I looked different from my schoolmates. I have always celebrated July Fourth with the hope that we will change and overcome this institutionalized racism that is so prevalent and affects so many people. I have reached the point that I can no longer tolerate the status quo, and will celebrate the start of a new America where we are all treated fairly and can enjoy these inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. — Jaime R. Pereyra, Boston, Mass.
I'll be thinking about my mother, Dora Alicia Urbina Flores De Leon, as I always do on July Fourth, but especially this year, as it marks the 50-year anniversary of her living in the United States. Five decades ago, she moved to the United States from Guatemala and changed our family's story forever. And yet. I don't think she anticipated that all these years later, after stepping foot on U.S. soil, that she'd still have to fight the "bad hombre" narrative. Good thing one of her three daughters is a writer. — Jennifer De Leon, author and teacher
The Fourth of July has always been a great paradox for me. As a kid, it was my favorite holiday and I looked forward to fireworks and eating fresh barbecue marinated with my grandma’s special sauce. But as I learned more about Black history and the hidden history of the oppressed, I came to realize that the holiday I loved so much was never intended for me. The fireworks that lit the sky weren’t mine to celebrate just like they weren’t for my ancestors. In 2020, Black people are still waiting for their independence. Who knows when it will come. But at least until then, I have grandma’s barbecue to look forward to. — LaShyra "Lash" Nolen, rising second-year student at Harvard Medical School
This Independence Day, I’m thinking about freedom. I’ve willingly curtailed many of mine — freedom of movement, freedom to face the world unmasked, freedom to visit my disabled son in his residential home — in order to protect others’ well-being, their freedom to live long and healthy lives. The necessity of short-term sacrifice for a long-term benefit seems obvious and yet it’s one that incomprehensibly is still debated. And COVID-19 continues to spread. It's infuriating. Lack of federal leadership has cost tens of thousands of American lives. But there is also us. Neighbors taking care of neighbors, dropping off groceries, making each other masks, organizing and marching to make change. I believe that together we will get through this. — Alysia Abbott, author and writing instructor
This segment aired on July 4, 2020.