When I was a kid, the Fourth of July was my absolute nightmare. I dreaded it with every fiber of my being and each year my anxiety around it got worse because I was terrified of loud noises. I couldn’t even be around balloons let alone relax outside while erratic and deafening explosions were happening in the air, it was awful. And because I was a weird kid I couldn’t go into the house because then I would be alone and the only thing worse than sky detonations was being alone, so I picked the lesser of two evils and for years I would spend my Independence Day cowering in the hills of West Virginia while my family enjoyed themselves to their heart’s content.
Eventually, my sentiments did begin to shift as I learned more about why we celebrated the holiday. In the fourth grade we spent the entire year on the Revolutionary War and the subsequent years of America’s birth (sans slavery, of course). With this abridged version, I started to fall in love with the story of a Nation that Should Not Have Been. After learning about how much “we” fought for our independence, how much the odds were stacked against “us”, the Fourth of July started to become a beautiful commemoration of our collective history. I started to love watching the fireworks specials on TV (I lived right outside of D.C. and could have gone but old habits die hard), I poured over the PBS specials about the early years of the country, and I started to feel immense pride around the holiday. Also, it didn’t hurt that Obama was in office while I was in high school and it really felt like the world was changing for the better and that progress was tangible.
Wasn’t ignorance fun? I should be more ignorant, but instead when I got to college I was flooded with a hidden history of slavery, and exploitation of Black people that continues today. When slavery was taught to me throughout my school life, it was largely presented as “Bad! So bad! It is the worst! But it is over and they had no other choice.” Before college, slavery and the founding of the nation somehow seemed mutually exclusive. As if once all the paperwork with becoming independent was settled, slavery started and they were not in conversation with each other whatsoever.
I went to New York University for my undergraduate degree, and while college is a transformative experience for anyone, the biggest transformation for myself was in how I view my Blackness. I went to a predominately white school for the majority of my life and I had immense learning and unlearning to do, but was fortunate enough to have met impactful people who had the patience to usher me into a new consciousness, a consciousness that encompassed the entirety of the history of our country. It started with finding out that Ronald Reagan was nowhere near a friend of the Black community, and swiftly snowballed into finding out horrible truths like the bombing of Black Wall Street, and how integral slavery was to the success of early America. It was a lot to take in. How could I have missed all of this? Why would my history teachers make me read an entire chapter on the Great Schism but nothing past George Washington Carver’s peanuts? What was I supposed to do with all this information?
Even though I was unsure on how to process, my Black peers sure were not. The overwhelming sentiment among the Black population at NYU (and also pretty much every other population) was a big, patriotic, “We hate America, let it burn, she blows”. For most people it wasn’t a question, it was an automatic, fervent, and deeply instilled hatred of America. And who can blame them? After reviewing the sequence of events, any rational person would come to the conclusion that America was built off the backs of slaves and wanted nothing to do with their Black descendants. And even though I could clearly see the logic of a Black American hating the nation, if I am being honest there was always something holding me back from proudly declaring, “I hate America and she can rot in the Hudson!” For a while I was sure it was the remaining battle of my constant struggle with internalized racism. It took until the last two years of college to feel comfortable and welcomed in all Black spaces, and to feel proficient in Black culture and language. I felt that if I could denounce America, if I could feel comfortable screaming its name in vain, I could defeat the “final boss” and feel complete in my Blackness. But that day has yet to come, and I am sure it never will.
To put it simply, I don’t think I could ever fully hate America because it is all that I have. I want to put an emphasis on fully because that is the key word in the sentiment. I’m not dumb, I well know that America is a racist, broken, unfair, bully of a nation that was in no way built for me and actively tries to oppress and kill me on a daily basis, but as a Black American I have nothing to fall back on. One of my aunts tried to trace our lineage and as far as we could get was the South. We have no clue as to where our ancestors were taken from, and even if we took a DNA test it wouldn’t suffice. While I am sure whatever culture we are truly from would accept us with open arms and we can learn more about our history, the fact of the matter is I grew up with American traditions and values. We used fireworks every Fourth of July, we had cookouts every Memorial Day, we order Chinese food on Christmas, and we always watch the Purina Dog Show after the Thanksgiving Day Parade (my personal favorite). My identity and my world view is that of an American, and I have a very difficult time letting that go, that personal history. Many Black Americans that hate America are able to separate their lived experience from the American experience. Their entire childhoods they were buoyed with Black experiences, Black voices, and Black community that allowed them to grow up with that support system that always told them the hidden truths. While I definitely had all of those resources in some capacity, they were drowned out by the white noise (pun intended) of a homogeneous environment where I was the odd one out.
I am unsure how this is all sounding, but I want to be clear that I don’t want this to sound like I am a winner, loser, or a Stockholm Syndrome captive in the situation. While I envy those who were fortunate enough to love their Blackness from day one, that just isn’t my truth. I also want to note I have a very proud Black mother and Black family and I am and have always been the black sheep (pun… warped but intended) of my family and pretty much the only one I know of to struggle with something like this. I am not invalidating any Black American who hates America, I am also not giving the nation a free pass just because I was born here. I have a critical enough mind to know that the United States of America writ large is hardly something to celebrate as an underdog success story, but I also know that my American childhood and upbringing is something that is special to me.
Being able to fracture my small, personal slice of America from the larger reality is something that comes from immense privilege, and I acknowledge that and try to find ways to work through that. As I grow older and continue to learn more about my personal history and the nation’s history, I welcome my views on this holiday to change, but for now I celebrate the Fourth of July to utilize my vacation days, to be with friends and family, and to reflect on my journey in this country.
Author’s Note: Being a Black American means constantly evaluating and re-evaluating experiences, customs, and institutions that are all you have known. While I wouldn’t write this piece today, I will always embody its spirit of trying to celebrate the pride I have for the community I’ve found.