Fourth of July: Freedom is complicated
Finding hope in a day that isn’t fully yours
I woke up yesterday finding nothing spectacular about the day. I got to sleep in, which was nice so I woke up at 7. I got to lay—lie? I can never tell—in bed and think about where I was last year (2016).
Last year, two men—Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling—were killed within the same week and their deaths were recorded, watched, and scrutinized. Last year, people—who had never asked before—were asking questions like, could it really be true that black and brown people in America have a very different — perhaps a much more fearful relationship with law enforcement than white people? People who were skeptical were beginning to see things differently. Even those who might still be blinded by the racial implications had questions about the use of deadly police force. Friends who had previously been silent began posting statuses declaring "black lives matter" all over my Facebook newsfeed.
Then the Dallas police shooting happened. A black man with a troubled background killed five police officers at what began as a peaceful demonstration. Somehow that incident threw water on the fire that seemed to be sparked yet again on the Black Lives Matter movement in public conversation. It was ugly, confusing and overwhelmingly sad.
Last year, I realized American Independence Day was not my holiday and America was not my country. It didn’t seem to belong to black people and regardless of the fact that black hands built the white house, America’s founding fathers did not see the image of God in black and brown skin while they were “holding truths to be self-evident.”
One Year Later (2017)
That week, a year ago, did not feel like progress. It did not feel like it was worth celebrating. I was alone for most of the day. I read Langston Hughes, “I, Too Sing America” and I listened to James Baldwin deliver an essay debating “The American Dream.” I also listened to The Liturgist's podcast on Christian violence, when I thought about the idea of American freedom purchased through war and death.
Then I went to see fireworks with some awesome friends in Boston. The fireworks were set to go off at a certain time, but something strange happened. They went off a few minutes before they were supposed to start. There was a loud noise—the feeling of sound pushing through my body and the sudden thought of impending death — then I saw streams of light fly up into the sky and I breathed a sigh of relief, right alongside many people who communicated the same relief that follows unwarranted fear. We all refocused to the celebratory display we were waiting for.
The fireworks were beautiful. I had never really understood or liked them before. I didn't get how people could stand and watch something that seemed repetitive and pompous. But since my friends and I made about a four hour journey to get there I felt like I had to get something out of it.
I’m not gonna lie — I wanted someone to address the tensions of this day — someone who wasn’t me. My outward joy and inward sorrow were affirmed when someone finally said something. It was a sigh of relief to know that my friends understood that it was a “complicated day” to celebrate.
Fireworks are loud and showy. If you’re not in a celebratory mood, they might even be annoying. But I watched, with a little sadness in my heart alongside the awe that comes with mentally trying understand how they design fireworks that say “USA.” I could hear the excitement of kids, shamelessly indulging in wonder — melting my heart. There’s a dream-like quality, one that comes along as you are watching something that sounds like death but looks strangely alive.
Freedom is complicated.
I am thankful for the way my mind works, but I often lament that my brain doesn’t take many vacations. I never quite know how to turn it off. I didn’t turn it off for a single day last year and in that moment I had a lot to think about. I grew up thinking the story of the American Revolution was so simple and so inspiring. Hearing how the kids in the crowd reacted to the fireworks reminded me of how much I longed for a simply story. An idea of freedom that can be celebrated by all people in America one day.
As the fireworks were going, there was a point where I closed my eyes. I relived the feelings of the unexpected fireworks that went off earlier. I heard the sound of hurt, the sound of violence, the sound of war, the sound of freedom — a complicated freedom. I wondered what comfort could be found in that sound? It sounds like chaos and confusion — like brothers, American and British on opposite sides of a line in accusation. Like brothers, on the north and south side of a line in a tug of war that seemed to sever about as much as it unified. I also couldn’t resist being aware of how my body felt, and I held back tears thinking about people who are alive today who know what it’s like to feel the vibration of gunshots nearby and wonder if you’re next.
It wasn’t celebration, not fully. Not for me. It was mourning that allowed for a war won and a song that declares freedom for some and shame for others, despite the fanfare that would suggest otherwise. One simply had to open their eyes to see how confusing it all is.
When my eyes were open there was something to wonder about, to see. I could see that freedom was complicated and beautiful. I could see that there was always a cost. I was not in a place to be happy, to celebrate and wish celebratory tidings unto others—
but once the fireworks died down, there was applause. The show was over.
Then there was smoke obscuring the city skyline. There was a crowd of people just trying to get home, police officers just trying to keep everyone safe, park rangers just trying to keep things in order. It was messy and somehow we walked through the messiness together as part of the dance of humanity: All of us looking out for our own interests as we shuffled our bodies to get on the subway, only looking back to meet eyes with those we know to make sure we could stay together. All of us trying not to make eye contact with strangers you are regrettably standing too close to, liked packed sardines into the subway car. All of us returning to our lives—some of us remembering a fight and some of us still living it. All of us easily forgetting we were all in the same place, reveling in the magical light show in the sky —
It was a moment, but we all saw something.
Originally published on Medium.com on July 5, 2017 as "Freedom is complicated: finding hope in a day that isn’t fully yours."