Every July 4, patriotic speeches at celebrations inspire crowds to honor the flag, while the homeless beg for food at street corners. More than half of America’s youth are too ignorant to understand the July Fourth speeches, victims of a mediocre educational system. Adults spend billions of dollars on tummy tucks and Botox injections while millions of children go without basic healthcare.
On July Fourth I am reminded of the freedoms and rights guaranteed to Americans, but not all Americans. Throughout much of our history, even native-born Americans have been denied freedoms spelled out in the Constitution. Seventy-two years after the 1848 women’s conference at Seneca Falls, New York, Congress finally gave women the “right” to vote in national elections.
In 1852, freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass told a July Fourth audience in Rochester, New York, that “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me…. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.” A century later, Congress was still juggling proposals to guarantee Blacks access to the ballot box.
So for me the symbolism of July Fourth is a powerful reminder to me that freedom is an elusive goal. I realize the difficulty of preserving and expanding freedoms, even in a “free” country.
Also on this day, I remind myself of how lucky I am to be an American because I have experienced first hand some of misfortune and madness in other parts of the world. While in the Peace Corps I lost dozens of Igbo friends in ethnic killings that led to the Nigerian Civil War. While this senseless slaughter continued around me, diseased children and their parents with distorted limbs were crawling to my door begging for a penny.
I will never forget the bullet holes in the university hallways in China where I taught a year after the Tiananmen carnage. The emotional anxiety of my Chinese students who were afraid to discuss the June 4, 1989, massacre in Beijing was a sobering reminder of my good fortune to be born in the United States.
In Chinese, the word for America means “beautiful country.” And living in China taught me another important lesson about America. Everyone wants to come to my country to live.
Yes, America is special, but why? The answer lies in understanding this nation as an unending experiment in expanding freedom, justice, and welfare to everyone. America will never be a finished product. Indeed, the energy that drives Americans is the freedom to reexamine our national values and make adjustments when needed.
I may attend an July 4th parade and celebrate with friends. But when the fireworks flash in the sky, I am reminded not only of those who sacrificed their life in battle, but also those who had to fight long into the 20th century for their freedoms. On July Fourth I deliberately take time out to reflect on why America is special. I turn to the deeper symbolism of this holiday. The meaning of America cannot be explained by flags and jingles. The true meaning of America lies in the soul. The word “America” is the sound of the soul’s yearning for growth and freedom.
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