A collection of college students are setting off fireworks in my apartment complex’s parking lot, igniting bottle rockets from their hands, waving sparklers around like arsonist conductors, firing red-white-and-blue roman candles uncomfortably close to my car. On a normal Sunday night, blowing shit up in a residential area might be considered low-key terrorism. But on this very special weekend, we call it patriotism.
It was the fifth of July. Not the fourth, but the fifth. A perhaps under-appreciated but nevertheless under-whelming holiday, seeing as it isn’t one. These fireworks were not lit in the name of a historical milestone of post-coloni-zation. They were being fired off because they were the leftovers from the night before, the ones that would be sitting around in the closet for a year other-wise, so why not just light ‘em up now? Harder to appreciate that way.
An Eastern-European family looks out on Ellis Island. The Statue of Lib-erty emerges out of the fog. The father, stern behind a dark suit and moustache. The mother, veiled in a light headscarf, clasps her hands together. The young boy, in a tattered suit and oversized flat-cap, pointing into the distance in awe. Through the clouds above, the parch-ment fades through – “We the People” bannering the sky in swirling ink letters – Lady Liberty’s torch points straight at the overhanging Law of the Land …
This is the front cover of the booklet I’m going over with Mom and Dad, sitting across the kitchen table. 100 Civics Questions for the Naturalization Test. A pop quiz for the future citizens of Our Country, USA. A booklet of such pressing questions.
“Who lived in America before the Europeans arrived?” I ask.
Dad hasn’t answered any so far – he bites his fingernails, eyes on the table. Mom answers instead, in her low, calm voice – a British accent that hasn’t quite faded after 14 years surrounded by Floridian drawl.
“Native Americans,” Mom says. According to the booklet, ‘Amer-ican Indians’ is an acceptable answer as well.
“What group of people was taken to America and sold as slaves?”
“Africans.” Or ‘people from Africa.’ Either works.
Last question. “What is the ‘rule of law?’”
Hard one. Mom shakes her head.
Dad keeps chewin’ away.
“‘No one is above the law.’” The young boy points to the hori-zon. Lady Liberty stands tall.
“This country used to be great,” I keep hearing. So it says in the history books. So it says in the GOP debates. We talk about the American Revolu-tion as if it were yesterday. As if we all remembered it. “What a great time for our country. People who stood for principles! And justice!”
The same people that owned slaves. And didn’t allow suffrage for women. On land that they took from a native population.
I don’t mean to decry the revo-lutionaries as if the net worth of their thoughts and actions were not positive; they laid a framework for democracy in a time where it was very dangerous to do so, pushing against the oppressive colonial system of the world’s most powerful nation. But today, I challenge our active and vocal nostalgia for these times. It’s not noble, or even healthy, to romanticize the past. We face a new country with a new awareness of issues that were non-issues in their time. To desire the mindset of the Founding Fathers is to desire an ignorance towards the reality we face today.
It’s easy to long for the past.
It’s harder to face the present and the future. That’s what made the Founding Fathers so great. Not because they were reminiscing over the highlights of the English monarchy but because they were acknowledging the mistakes of the past and discovering the values of the future.
We stand side-by-side in the Naturalization Office – Dad, Mom, my sister and I – and fifteen other soon-to-be citizens, hands over our hearts, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance …
“I pledge Allegiance, to the Flag…”
A pledge we memorized, to prove our dedication to the purple mountains majesty …
“… of the United States of America …”
A collection of fifty, a wide variety of ecosystems, from the California Redwoods to the Arizona deserts to the Florida Everglades, and a wide variety of demographics, a hodge-podge of global races, cultures, and political identities, collected together in a lump sum, U plus S plus A …
“… and to the republic, for which it stands …”
A flag that we all stand under, an emblem that represents us all, a figure that we pray to, a false idol we worship…
“… one nation, under God …”
They added that part in 1954, under Dwight D. Eisenhower, in the hopes of reminding us that our government is backed by an everlasting, all-powerful deity, an eternal form of government …
“… indivisible …”
The Civil War still on our shoulders. The Civil Rights Movement even closer to home. A two-party system, cut straight down the middle …
“… with liberty and justice for all.”
At least we hope so. It’s that form of hope that we’re pledging allegiance to. Not to the past, the mistakes we remember all too well. Not to the present, the flaws of the world we stand in now. We’re pledging allegiance to the future. What we hope to achieve. Who we hope to become.
After we’ve all removed our hands from our hearts, the facilitators of the ceremony hand out miniature flags for us all to keep – a red and white striped strip of polyester fabric, glued to a plastic stick.
And then we were officially Americans.
Four years later, fireworks off in the parking lot, and I’m fast asleep.
By JAMIE BLACKBAND / Staff Writer
Found in The Last Word Magazine 2016 Print Edition