It is the week of the Fourth, and COVID or not, Americans are traveling. My family is no exception.
We pack our bags, jigsaw the backend of our gas-guzzling SUV until everything fits, then wait an extra hour on a last-minute package from Amazon. It is nothing if not American.
Shiny, new baby bicycle seat in hand, we head west in search of scenic byways and cascading falls; stale-sandwich picnics and mosquito bites; overtired toddlers and sobbing, sunburnt kiddos; the lie and the truth. We cruise around Chicago, pee at every rest area Wisconsin has to offer while donning handmade face masks, then inhale drive-thru cheeseburgers halfway through Minnesota. Bleary-eyed, we stop for the night at an AmericInn because what’s more patriotic than that?
The next morning, we down free coffee, hit the road, speed past billboards dotting a South Dakota skyline. Come see the Sioux Museum and Cultural Center. Visit our Old West Trading Post. Your heart’s desires await at Wall Drug. One Nation for Us All. Explore the Borglum Rushmore Story – “a life changing patriotic experience” (just be sure to gloss over that whole KKK thing. Oh, and the appropriated land). A string of conflicting shouts lines the red-tinged highway. I laugh out loud at these battling ideas along a single road littered with people of every kind and color racing to one or (is it even conceivable?) all of these destinations.
We speed across the Missouri, wide and clean, snaking between hills of olive green like waves tipped with stands of dark spruce. The sky opens giant blue, limitless. So why do we feel so bound, roped and tied like cattle? We are not the livestock munching dry grass on these mounds of fenced Earth. We can untie ourselves. We can fight our way free.
But the powers that be are hoping we don’t – don’t discuss, agree, disagree, reach an understanding, come together. They want us divided. Masses are more predictable that way, easier to order and control – so the powerful toss their lassos, bind our minds, tell us we can only be one thing.
They force feed that if we love our country, we must declare it magnificent at every turn. “Buy into the Borglum Story. Bypass the Sioux Museum.”
And in this same vein, if we see America’s systemic racism, sexism, and classism, then we certainly cannot wave the flag of our nation in celebration. We are living in times of either/or when the only way forward might be “and.”
If I could not acknowledge “and,” I would not be inside my own body, the byproduct of Natives and Europeans. An Odawa Indian and a German woman married, had children. Those children had children, one of whom is my mother. I would not exist were it not for both indigenous and immigrant peoples. The merging of two cultures can be a beautiful thing and it can also be devastating. It is not only okay to acknowledge both of these truths, it is essential.
I can love America and question its motives. I can be grateful for the opportunities afforded me and recognize those opportunities are not equally given. I can recite the pledge and disrupt the lie of “justice for all” that lives in that pledge but not on street corners or forgotten, far-flung reservations.
I can acknowledge the beauty of a National Park and the insidious history behind those very lands. I can take smiling photos and tell my children how those highjacked vistas came to be. I can shake my head in disgust when the President of this country stages a Fourth of July celebration on such lands while refusing to acknowledge the painful past hidden beneath white faces carved in stolen stone. And the next day, I can applaud the fireworks above those same Black Hills, just miles from the media frenzy meant to further divide this nation.
I can “ooh” and “aah” alongside my children, wrapped in stars and stripes and the magic of a summer celebration and I can know the birth of this nation signaled the demise of entire populations. I can be patriotic and angry. I can be American and anti-American. That is what makes America great. That is what could finally make us as exceptional as we’ve always claimed to be.
We are granted the space to question this country that we love, to challenge its leaders and one another to do better for us, for all of us. It is the most American thing we can do. Through our voices and our votes, through whatever spheres of influence we have – if we love this country, it’s time to embrace the “and.” As a white, middle-class woman, my privilege allows me the space to do so. There are no injustices put on me by the color of my skin or my diluted bloodline, but I can work to tear down those injustices for others.
During this week focused on American freedoms, we can eat the hot dogs, singe eyebrows with sparklers and stay up telling stories around campfires. We can delight in this very American holiday and stop to recognize that not all Americans feel the same. We can challenge ourselves to see beyond the red, white and blue, and step into the gray, the area where patriotism and protest live together, the space where I can love my country and demand that my country change, that it actually, finally, become the great birthplace of freedom it has, since its inception, falsely sworn itself to be.