I’ll have to do this work someday, too, and I hope I handle it with the grace of my parents, for whom exposing me to brutal stories was an act of love.
Brit Bennet, from “Addy Walker, American Girl”
4 July 2020
364 days ago one of you—the only one who was speaking then—asked me if we “could have Fourth of July every day.” Which was sweet, because we’d spent the previous day with friends, having a really typical multi-family barbecue.
There were six parents and a thousand kids. Maybe it was only seven kids, all of them six and under, but you little ones seemed like multitude. An excellent multitude. We ate corn and ribs and potato salad and gluten-free cookies. You kids chased a bunny around the yard and played in the little plastic pool until you were cold and done with it. Three babies rolled around on blankets on the deck, fenced in by plastic chairs and parents’ knees. The parents talked ruefully about politics, but not much. Mostly we talked about anything but that. It was grand.
Everyone went home around eight, and you both went to bed. Dad and I stayed up to watch a new season of Stranger Things, then sneaked into your bedroom when it got dark to watch the top half of Seattle’s firework show, which we could only see from your window. We woke you up to watch, but you weren’t interested, so we put you back in bed and watched in silence, as dahlias and dandelions of flame burst low on the horizon.
This year will be different. We can’t invite our friends over. Some of them moved away anyway, but even though the rest are still close, we’re not having those kinds of parties right now. You know, because of the virus we’re always talking about. Also, there won’t be any fireworks for us to wake you up for, because fireworks would draw a crowd, and crowds are exactly what everyone in the world—or most people, anyway—is trying to avoid right now. So no barbecue and fireworks, which leads me to ask: What should we do with this day?
I’d like to say we should celebrate our history, that this year is the year I could start to tell some stories that express those capital-letter ideals—Life, Liberty, the Pursuit of Happiness—that are meant to be at the foundation of this place where we live.
But it’s not the whole foundation, is it? How can I present American life without mentioning the lives stolen from the indigenous people who lived here first? How can I teach you about American liberty without also telling you that, from the beginning, it was off-limits to millions of enslaved Black Americans? How can I spin a tale of the American pursuit of happiness without acknowledging the grim reality that this quest is doomed from the start for many impoverished Americans?
I am a teacher; I should know how to teach this to you, shouldn’t I? But I was only a history teacher for a short time, and it wasn’t American history. Though I had never studied it, even at an elementary level, I once spent a year researching Canadian history in order to teach it to high schoolers. My students were Canadian teenagers, who had mostly never lived in Canada, and I hoped to give them a sense of the history into which they were born, a taste of the identity in knowing where they’d come from.
That’s what I want for you, too. And to get there—to help you know this place where you were born and whose name is stamped on your passport—I’m going to have to remember how I once taught that class, long ago. I’m going to have to remember what it meant to really learn history, if I hope to really teach it again.
Knowing only a little about contemporary Canada, I approached the entire subject wanting to know “how it got this way.” (And by “this way,” at the time I meant my limited knowledge of Canada as a vaguely British, far more courteous, far less populous and for-some-reason-bilingual sibling of America). Every decision, every juncture that divided Canada from America bore some examination. They did this, and we did that. Neither way was perfect; indeed, we both have to reckon with the way the nations that exist today came out of plunder and genocide wrought upon an entire continent.
Studying American history, for me, still means untangling the eager patriotism braided into my early education. Canadian history was different. I was just curious, not defensive or afraid of what I’d find if I looked too closely. I could weigh the wisdom and morality of its various triumphs and disasters with the clarity not allowed to American children studying their own history. I wasn’t always right then, either, and I missed a lot, but my mind and heart were open, ready to learn whatever I could.
I want to come back to our own history this way, with you, approaching this story with curiosity, compassion and courage. It will take all three for us to understand. We have to want to know where we came from, why you see so much white skin in books and movies, in our neighborhood, and in the leadership of our nation, even though we already know there are so many more languages, skin colors and cultures that make up America. We have to care, deeply, about people who are different from us, those for whom American history means generations of injustice that continue to affect them today. We have to be brave enough to see that this country we live in, a place that has offered safety and progress and protection to some, still has a long way to go before the ideals of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are truly within reach for everyone who lives here.
So this Fourth of July, I don’t know what we will do. We’ll probably have hamburgers because that feels appropriate, and we’ll probably read books and play in the yard like we always do. But America is complicated, and though I like a good celebration as much as the next person, I’m not willing to simplify it.
For now, I hope to teach you that being American means constantly trying to make this place better for our neighbors, means taking care of this country where you were born and the people in it. Perhaps by next Fourth of July, when maybe we’ll be back to barbecues and fireworks, we can start to unfold what all that means. Where we came from, where we hope to go, and how in this one nation, under God, we can work together for liberty and justice for all.