My parent’s sprinkler system has a broken pipe–seemingly under the above-ground pool they recently installed. Despite many efforts at digging around the exposed sprinkler heads to identify a place to stop the flow of water, the layout of the system has proven unpredictable and baffling. The whole array of sprinklers is rendered useless until this problem is solved, until the connection is clear, and the leak is controlled. Watering the yard has become a new challenge, as the resources available for this very purpose are circumvented by a broken and mysterious section of the system.
In the same way, the connections in our memory are pervasive and tangled. Unlike the sprinkler system leak, there is no one section of our minds to repair, but problems in one place do trigger problems in another. Injury or age-related memory loss is devastating as it indicates irregularities and cell loss of many parts of the brain. If memories are blocked and denied for reasons other than degeneration, the mental health community considers this noteworthy, and practitioners work to create an environment where the person is able to safely regain the memory in order to liberate the person from their coping limitation.
There is a collective national memory loss that begets a continuous denial of an honest national identity. There is a truthfulness to the present turmoil that begs for a nuanced patriotism and hope for a fractured country.
Many Americans are struggling in fear this summer. They are mourning, they are incredulous, and they are hurt because of past injustices and new threats. We are a young nation and in our brief history we have repeatedly enslaved and kidnapped brown children, and in the last few months have taken over 2000 into custody without a system for identification and reunification. We have stolen identities of whole groups, coerced them by promises we later broke, encamped specific immigrant populations, been the only country to use atomic bombs against people, and have a booming prison and detainment industry that over-criminalizes and dehumanizes people of color. The shadow of these broken and ugly places is long; it steps on the heels of the continued and new atrocities and injustices we are as a nation somehow tolerating today.
Despite these markers of our identity, the money and designed white majority have kept an account of history that slants the narrative in a comforting way. We learn from a small age that we exchanged gifts with Squanto the first thanksgiving. We talk as though African American slavery was very far away and camps belong in Germany and so on and so forth. We learn a pledge of allegiance before we can understand its words, an abbreviated anthem before we know about the other verses. If we are privileged enough that our appearance has not been held against us, that our skin tone is evidence in our favor, we love the law, we believe the system works, innocent until proven guilty, and all are equal.
Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!
But then we might learn, if we don’t work in it already, that the produce industry relies upon recruited, undocumented labor. We might think it novel that a young, unarmed teen is shot and killed by an armed officer until we learn that about 1000 people die every year in this manner. We might enjoy the confidence that bad people go to jail, that the law is somehow infallible and canon until we read about rapist Brock Turner let off the hook and Larry McKee, innocent but imprisoned for 20 years, and consider what failed these men and the victims. We learn that the prison industrial complex is one of the fastest growing businesses in America and we incarcerate more people than any other country, not per capita, just period. We might judge a millionaire taking a knee as an unsightly interruption until we learn that millions of Americans also don’t stand for the anthem. We maybe didn’t realize that peaceful protest is a sign of patriotism, negotiated with a veteran in civil discourse, that the facts support his posture, and that players were not required to even be on the field for the anthem until 2009 for primetime games.
America the beautiful is indeed a blessed land. Our imperfect freedoms, our lofty ideals, and the history of immigrants finding and founding a new way of life is worthy of celebration. That gift from France, Lady Liberty, is hope for all, from those who have been here for generations and may be tempted to shut heart and borders to those who will come tomorrow. Celebration and praise, or in our case, patriotism, is rendered thin and hollow if its participants must remain untruthful to the whole story for its very preservation. The patriotism is brittle if it cannot host the truth about both the good and the bad, the victories and the inequalities and the great work left to be done–this is a very small patriotism indeed.
Our collective national memory loss is to our detriment–every persons, whether they celebrate 4th of July with fervor or with held breath. The cost of the cognitive dissonance that requires rehearsing a slanted history, excluding neighbors, and cutting off half our emotional resources while singing about freedom and courage is too high. Our whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and when one part is leaking, the whole place is parched. Knowingly denying the brokenness, the washout, and the painful scars make our parades salt on wounds and the idea of America on the precipice of cliché. Sometimes we are gifted the difficult grace to know first hand our country’s ugliest moments and greedy underbelly; sometimes we can only learn through believing someone else’s account–a brave, patriotic and humane act indeed.
This July 4th, whomever we find yourselves with, whatever we each have given for this country and to be here–which are invaluable to be sure–may our patriotism reach a higher level of integrity by accepting the deep, pervasive laments as well as the anthems. If you enter this holiday conflicted, how American; you are not alone. If you enter this holiday filled with hope, how American. If you enter this holiday barely, with fear and weariness in your bones, how American. This land is your land and my land. Protest and mourning are appropriate. Sharing big tables and filling our eyes with wonder are appropriate. We are capable of both and must exercise such capacity in pursuit of life and liberty for all.