When we lived in South Carolina, our Independence Day tradition was simple: We would camp out on the reviewing field on the Army base where my husband and I both worked and watch the “Torchlight Tattoo.”
The event always took place July 3 to give soldiers and their families a real holiday, but the spirit was the same. Before the fireworks show, there was a formal ceremony that featured a cannon salute to each U.S. state and territory. It was a reminder that the holiday is more than barbecued hot dogs and Americana-themed crafts and fireworks. It was a reminder that soldiers like the ones standing on that field are the reasons we have the freedoms we have today.
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Only this year, as we celebrate our nation’s 239th birthday, I find myself reflecting on these freedoms and wondering whether we are actually going backward. Do the math: Our country was founded in 1776. The Civil War ended in 1865. And it was only last week that the South Carolina governor said the Confederate battle flag should be removed from the Statehouse grounds.
I know, I know. We’re living in a post-racial society now. We have a black president. If we stop talking about racism, it would no longer exist.
Except that’s not true. For the past few months, I feel like I’ve been adding things to the invisible list in my head. Things that black people should be careful doing. Make sure your hairstyles aren’t too ethnic. Don’t go swimming. Seriously, don’t go swimming. Don’t go for help if you’re in a car accident. Don’t talk back to the police. Don’t go to church.
It’s sad that it has taken the murder of nine innocent people for some people to finally admit that racism still exists. And that it’s not just those people who “grew up in a certain time” who hold those views. A few weeks ago, my husband saw the words “White power” written in chalk on the sidewalk near our neighborhood playground. And my 6-year-old told me that a kid at his school told him he was from Africa. (In case you’re wondering, my son said, “No, I’m from South Carolina.”) We brushed both those incidents off; chalked them up to kids who didn’t know any better. But the fact is, we don’t really know. And we are doing our kids a disservice by pretending that people in this country aren’t treated a certain way because of their race.
My husband often shares an anecdote in which a white classmate in one of his Army training classes said that he doesn’t see race. And my husband replied, “You’re full of crap.” Because burying our heads in the sand, pretending that these things don’t exist is how we got here in the first place. “Seeing race” isn’t the problem. The problem is our refusal to address prejudices head-on. To stand up for our fellow man, regardless of race. To stand up to injustice. This is not a black problem or a white problem or a non-problem.
By all means, this Saturday, barbecue for your friends and family. Hang your red, white and blue wreath on your front door. Shoot fireworks (if it’s legal where you live), or go to a fireworks show. I know I will. But take some time to think about this country and what it stands for. The second sentence of the Declaration of Independence states:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
While we’re not quite there, I fervently and honestly hope and believe that we are close to fulfilling the “all” in “all men.” Not rich men or white men or men with connections or men who have gone to college. But the only way to get there is together, with our heads finally out of the sand and our eyes wide open.
Why not make this year the year we let our patriotism push down the racism this country has held onto for much too long.