Yesterday the firecrackers on my street started around 4pm and ended just after midnight. I don’t own a smoker or a grill, but I did the best I could by slow cooking a picnic roast and slathering it in my mom’s secret barbecue sauce. We watched Independence Day and rewound to make sure we didn’t miss the speech. We watched Independence Day 2 which isn’t as bad as everyone says it is, and National Treasure. We drank whiskey. We looked at Twitter.
Someone said it was like being forced to celebrate your ex’s birthday and we laughed too hard because there are still babies in jail and screaming isn’t socially acceptable.
Celebrating America is almost too much to bear sometimes — this stolen land built with the blood and bones of a stolen people, the promise of equality and freedom wrapped up in a straight jacket so tight its gone numb. We listened to the John F. Kennedy recording of the Declaration of Independence and it hurt to hear how much was the same. 242 years later and we’ve come back to King George, sitting on his throne and telling us who gets to be American.
It isn’t easy, this place we’ve built. When these promises were made, they were made to white men who owned land and people, and to hell with their wives and those who lived here first. The American legacy is prying that promise open with a crowbar, the jaws of life, our scraped and bruised hands pushing their way through and fighting to keep the door open behind us. Democracy is an ever expanding project, fighting constantly with power and privilege and complacency. It’s a war with too many fronts, and we’re outgunned, but not out manned.
This thing we love works best when we all show up. It’s easy to forget that sometimes, when we’re tired or hurt, when the gains we’ve made seem so easily swallowed up by the pursuit of power and relentless bad faith. It seems wholly unfair that we can’t just set this thing in motion while we head to the beach and trust that it will plug along without us. The worst part of democracy is that it rests on our shoulders and we can’t put it down. The best part is that the more people we lift up, the easier that load is to bear.
We can’t fix history. We can’t erase the shadow that looms over our exalted past, try though some might. We can’t make the founders better people, we can’t make our story less bloody. But we can take that promise they meant for a few and keep it for many. And when we get knocked down, we can get back up and keep fighting and pull someone else up behind us. The best way to celebrate democracy is to participate in it.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again and again and again. Show up to a campaign. Sign up for a Swing Left district where you can help flip a House seat from red to blue, even if it’s kind of far away. Volunteer with Run for Something and make calls on behalf of young progressives fighting to make this country better at every level. Sign up for Flippable to help flip state legislatures around the country, because a lot of important issues like abortion rights and voting rights are going to be fought in the states if we lose this Supreme Court fight. Save your Senators and Representatives phone numbers in your contacts list. Call them about the issues that are important to you. Volunteer at your local community center, food bank, school, or church. Find local organizations working on issues you care about and ask them what they need. Write a letter to the editor for your local paper. Tell your story. Encourage your friends to tell their stories. Lift up the voices of those around you who don’t get to speak, who aren’t often heard.
This place is what we make of it — an idea we all get to shape. If we want to be heard, if we want to make it better, we have no choice. We have to show up. We have to fight back.
Photo credit: Taekia Blackwell
Title credit: from an Eddie from Ohio song