The Fourth of July has always been my favorite holiday. My experiences growing up made it a day of community, of new and old friends, of recklessness and excitement, good food and better music. At home, I would see neighbors and listen to a bunch of old guys playing fiddles and banjos before lighting fireworks much to close to the house. At summer camp, we would watch the counselors reenact the major events of the revolutionary war, sing patriotic songs and watch a professional firework show light up the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was the only day of summer camp when friends and family were allowed to visit. People were brought together in the middle of summer to celebrate not only our history but also our current lives and the hope for a bright future. In those days it was simple...
I was American. I was proud of my country. I was proud of what we did and what we stood for.
As I have grown up this simple sense of patriotism has grown more complex. In light of current politics and through my own growing understanding of America outside of the rural south, it can be hard to see how we can call ourselves a unified country.
While traveling around Europe, I felt a little lost. I was both embarrassed by my country and eager and excited to share about it. I loved comparing cultures and experiences with the people I met, but I felt dishonest because I only represented and understood a tiny portion of what America is.
America is a HUGE country. So big that most Europeans I met had a hard time conceptualizing how big and exactly how different each portion of the country can be. To me, California or Boston are as culturally different from me as England was. I grew up in the rural Appalachian Mountains. I also grew up in a college town. I grew up as a liberal in a conservative area. I grew up as the granddaughter of a career military man and WWII veteran. I grew up religious. I grew up skiing and climbing in an area where people truly value nature. All these things are connected to my sense of identity as an American. But I know that many other Americans cannot relate to my life, nor I to theirs. My experience as a middle class, white, cisgender, female with Scots-Irish blood, a rich family tied to the military and an intense love for rural places and adventure is not THE American experience. It is one of the thousands of different and all equally American lives.
So what does it actually mean to be American? That's the question I have been asking myself (and others) for the last few months. What - if anything - ties us together?
How can we feel unified across such great differences and divides even as our country grows more and more diverse?
While traveling I met a woman who asked me what America is really like. "I know you guys like freedom a lot, but I don't really know what that means," she said. And I laughed. It was so simple and obvious. But she was right. Americans are fiercely protective of whatever they think their rights are. Those rights are different for every American, ranging from the right to birth-control and public access to national parks (things close to my heart) to the right to equal consideration under the law no matter religion or skin color, from the right to own personal protection, to the right to a home and enough food to eat, from the right to safe and accessible education to the right to ancestral homelands. Americans feel like they have a right to the life they want and will fight like hell to protect it. This drive creates division. It creates as many problems and differences as it solves. But it ties us together and it reflects the reason our country exists in the first place.
I think Americans admire adventurers, people who are brave and curious and willing to try new things in order to grow and progress. We can think of the pioneers and the pilgrims, crossing rough seas and uncharted wilderness in pursuit of something better. We can think of the waves of brave souls venturing forth ever since, searching for a new place. Americans will move across the continent for school or a job in search of what they want. We have a tradition of great road trips. The biggest historical figures for us tend to be people who were not only good leaders or good people, but also ones who pushed boundaries, asked new questions and who kept searching for what they wanted, be that equal rights, a plot of land to farm, or the next best piece of technological progress.
Lastly, I think Americans are communal creatures. I believe that all humans crave community and companionship, but I think Americans make that desire into a national ideal. Our holidays and celebrations point towards this. The ones that are strictly and uniquely American - the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving - are centered around people. Holidays like memorial day are celebrated with cookouts and traveling to see other family members.
I admit I am taking a very optimistic and idealistic view of our country. I know that all these things are corrupted by hate and greed and ignorance. And unfortunately, many people believe that these values belong only to themselves and people like them.
I only have my experiences to draw from but at this point, in a time of change and division, I like to think these values can tie me to others across the continent and give us a sense of identity.
So, happy 4th of July. I would challenge everyone to use this holiday as a jumping off point for thinking more critically about the commonalities you have with your fellow countrymen. Even if at first they might seem like differences, these similar motivations and values can serve as a first tiny thread tying us together and making us a better nation.