Because I am who I am, I’ve rarely experienced a Fourth of July that couldn’t be described as privileged. Or, using another word, American.
Barbecues and picnics. White creased pants and wide-brimmed hats. Fresh corn and watermelon and pancake breakfasts where the fire station comes out to man the slip-and-slide. Those are pretty idyllic experiences that are, in essence, very American.
Of course the best memories revolve around camping chairs in the street watching the kids play with sparklers and the pyro-crazed bigger kids (i.e. men) play with rocket launchers, or whatever the really dangerous firecrackers are called.
Privilege. American privilege.
I’m traveling this holiday, which often crystallizes certain feelings about the American celebration quite succinctly. For example, there was the year in Paris (privilege!) we chose to eat at McDonald’s to commemorate the Fourth. Bland as it was, it was ours!
Besides the expected preternatural body assault from our very un-American TSA, and a work agenda that made me wonder why I was leaving in the first place, I settled in to the typical day-long travel regime to get me from point A to point B.
Please, just get me to the ocean.
During the boarding process for the flight leaving the country, TSA was present checking passports, again, as well as random passengers’ bags outside the boarding door. I noticed a Middle Eastern man being subject to their search, and my feelers pricked up.
There was another darker-skinned man queued up as well, and I was ready to pounce with allegations of discrimination and unfairness, eager to revel in my own self-righteous equanimity. Quintessential privilege.
Instead, they pulled me out of the boarding line. And boy was I bothered. There’s only so much overhead bin space, right? My place in line was definitely not first class, or comfort plus, or even sky priority, and by the time my turn came around, I needed to get on that plane.
But as I stood there watching them go through the staid contents of my purse, I was weirdly proud that they had chosen to pull aside a white, middle-aged (not in my head), conservatively-dressed woman to check for bomb residue.
Annoyed, yet placated, I walked away with an appreciation for our country. Not for the TSA, certainly, but for a country that while we have deep and troubling issues, we’re collectively trying to do better. And be better.
Whether our farcical political atmosphere or our embarrassingly low-brow president or some other weakness is pushing us, I really do believe we’re trying to be better. And as the common adage goes, out of weakness we may even find strength.
But only if our weaknesses aren’t forgotten. And only if our strength recognizes goodness.
Douglass, who grew up as a slave in Maryland, taught himself to read and escaped to New York. He gave this speech in 1852 to a group of New York abolitionists. It is a 10,381-word treatise on the experience of the American slave.
Concerning the national holiday, Douglass admonished,
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”
Racism, sexism, poverty and privilege. These are also part of America’s history. If we refuse to learn from them, our growth will be stunted.
America stands for principles of freedom and liberty, strength, work, and self-sufficiency. This is what we celebrate on the Fourth of July.
But shouldn’t we also stand for kindness and love and aiding in the well-being of our fellow man? That’s what this bleeding-heart conservative will be celebrating this holiday. Even if I’m not in America.
Michelle Quist is a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune.