When I was young, the 4th of July meant sunblock, bug spray, and fireworks. It marked the day of our annual pilgrimage from the center of town to the city limits, spending miles on a county road and watching the homes go from houses to estates.
That commute was a holiday tradition: something that could only be associated with the warmth of one’s favorite days of the year. The spectacle of the 4th, the generosity of Christmas, the sense of accomplishment that comes with completing another trip around the sun.
Point being, the 4th was something to look forward to. The food, the fireworks, the feat of diving into a body of water and getting used to how it felt. That was when you could be sure that it’d be a good night: after you’d lowered your defenses, shed your fear like a sundress, let yourself plummet and become as cold as your surroundings. The fun began as soon as you could declare that you couldn’t feel a thing.
The summer after high school, I worked as an attendant at a local gym and health club with mostly white patrons. I had just returned from four years away at boarding school. It had been long enough to turn me into a stranger in the town where I grew up. For this reason, I understood why patrons of the gym had so many questions beyond those pertaining to machine maintenance and toilet paper. Where I went to school, what my mom did for work, what I was planning to do in the fall. I didn’t particularly like it, but . I understood it. Upon recognizing an unfamiliar element in their routine, they had to try and make sense of it.
That same summer, in the midst of Florida v. Zimmerman, I was able to easily retrieve the name of Abner Louima from a Google search with the details my mom could remember: Haitian sodomized New York City police. I erased that final word because I didn’t want to affirm something so nightmarish: that we were living in a world in which those words strung together should be no surprise. That Trayvon Martin was dead as soon as the bullet found him alive, not when emergency responders didn’t.
This summer, as another man walks free after wielding the deadly power to claim fear, celebrating the 4th feels like affirming something rotten. Today’s the type of day that has you trying to remember why you started going by a nickname. Wondering whether the phonetic two-syllable variant is more fitting for you, or more convenient for those who speak it.
Today is a great day to feel the regret of not asking your grandmother for more of her stories. To realize the insanity and selfishness in dreams that see you passing knowledge you can’t yet claim onto children you can’t yet conceive of. Hanging onto that dream knowing that when you were young, you thought all of the answers were found by reaching forward, not back.
There isn’t a better day than today to ask yourself, when you hear people declare America the best nation on earth, whether they celebrate what it is or what they want for it. Today is for realizing that for some people, there isn’t a difference between the two. Today is the day to let that fact be just terrifying enough to ignite you.
It’s a great day to ask why dulce de leche has to be ‘like caramel.’ Why is it that, before you could understand something, you have to make it yours. Why it’s necessary to cut out its essence so you can paste on whatever takes up the least space and makes the most sense.
As you scan the sky for fireworks tonight, it would be a good moment to question the appeal of a tradition that only sees the beauty in something once it has been destroyed.
When the fireworks go off, it would be easy to recognize how easily you could lose everything. While you marvel at the explosions of color, it’ll be an opportune moment to understand why your family line was never meant to plant root in this soil like tendrils of power.
When you lift your eyes back up to the sky, this time in search of something to break up the stillness, it’s a good time to realize that there’s no deadline on tradition: it’s not too late.