Land of the Free
“The 4th of July is hard for me,” I confessed to my family. “It’s hard for me to want to wear the flag that some people don’t want me to live under.”
When I said this, I was frustrated and hurt, unsorted emotions swirling inside. All I knew was the childhood excitement and anticipation of the 4th of July no longer filled me. While working in customer service earlier this week, I checked out a lady who was decked out in American paraphernalia. She wore a red tank top with the American flag on her chest, a star-spangled necklace, and a patriotic visor. Seeing her reminded me of the Old Navy, American flag shirts my mom bought for me and my brother. I would coordinate every part of my outfit, from my socks to my glasses. I would finish the look off with a flag-printed bandana, altering the way I wore it as the trends changed over the years. I used to be so excited for the 4th, but this year, I felt none of that.
Over the past few days, I’ve been processing and sorting those swirling emotions that lead to my confession with the hope of explaining myself. I realized I was frustrated with people who so patriotically celebrate the 4th of July because they appear to be celebrating America in its “perfection.” But the past few years have shown me that America is broken. America is hurting, a crouched person bleeding behind the covering of the American flag. It’s not a powerful, spangly, Uncle Sam, it’s a little mixed girl being torn in two by her racially divided country.
Independence Day, the day we celebrate the ratification and completion of the Declaration of Independence that set us apart from England as The United States of America, has become a day to celebrate the “Land of the Free.” This land, sought out by pilgrims pursuing religious and other freedoms, is in many ways free. We’re free to vote, free to attend church, free to own land, free to get an education, free to blow up large explosives (outside of Kansas City limits, which I am sure you will all dutifully obey), free to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In all these ways and more, we are free.
But we’re not fully free. Not all of us.
On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, legally ending slavery, and on June 19th, 1865 (Juneteenth or “Freedom Day”), everyone got the message. Now, everyone was legally and officially free from slavery, but not from racism. As we all know, the battle for freedom was just begun, coming to a seeming climax, (and to the optimistic, an end), one hundred years later in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Yet, unfortunately, even in 2018, we are not all free. Though the physical chains of slavery were abolished years ago, racism is still psychologically, emotionally, and sometimes even physically, enslaving people of color.
And I am one of those people.
I am frozen in fear and filled with adrenaline when I see the confederate flag on the back of the pickup truck at the Target in Liberty or on the grill of the semi on 435 South.
I am wary and cautious when I stop in gas stations in rural parts of Missouri and across the country that are known for racism. Furthermore,
I am mentally and emotionally exhausted after guarding my students on road trips, as I hope and pray I can protect them from the experience of the young man, a little brother to me, who ran out of the gas station with fear and terror in his eyes because “KKK,” “White Pride” and a swastika were inscribed on the walls of the bathroom stall.
I am afraid before a job interview, not that I will say or do the wrong thing, but that my hair will look “too black,” risking me the job offer. So, I fight with myself between choosing to hide the way my hair naturally curls and frizzes or to embrace who I am fully.
I am still filled with hurt and frustration after my friend of color came to me with fear and confusion in his eyes after an officer pulled him over but refused to tell him why.
I am scarred and stand with the black girls and women who dared to love “outside of their race” and were rejected by the white boys and men because they “don’t like black girls” and “only like white girls.”
I am scared of the people who wave American flags and claim they want to go back to when America was “great”—which has been never in the past for people of color.
I am enslaved by the racism of the everyday American who believes in “us and them,” instead of “we.”
The people who hurt me most were never outsiders—they were proud Americans. As a result, I had rather unfortunately associated the Star-Spangled Banner with the racists of America who wave it so proudly. All of these feelings and more are what led me to say, “The 4th of July is hard for me. It’s hard for me to want to wear the flag that some people don’t want me to live under.”
Thankfully, my younger brother, who at times is much wiser than me, responded, “Think of the black people in the military who wear that flag on their chest and are fighting for you.”
Gratefulness flooded my heart as I thought of my black brothers and sisters serving for me, and I took it a step forward, saying, “Think of the white people who wear the flag on their chest and are fighting for me.”
That’s right. The white people who are fighting for me, the black/white person, to be truly free.
There will always be racist Americans. They’re in our country’s founding, present, and future, but my 4th of July is not and will not be about them. I will spend my time being thankful for how far America has made it, for the people who have gone before me to clear the way for freedom for ALL, and for the privilege I have to live in a country that is able to keep moving toward racial equality and freedom. I am thankful for the people, white, black, and other, who are fighting for ME and all other minorities to be truly free. Whether they are fighting in the military, in the courts, in the police system (because yes, there are plenty of great police officers), in the schools, in the churches, or elsewhere, they are fighting for America to live up to her name and truly be the Land of the Free.
I found my American Flag bandana wrinkled in the bottom of one of my drawers. I’m going to wear it tonight to the firework show because America is my home. I was born here, and I belong here just as much as the next person, regardless of how some people feel about that. I am free, and I am thankful for and proud of my freedom.