You Cannot Separate America's Present Beauty From Its Violent Past
The Fourth of July has always reminded me of my first trip to my godparents’ house in Augusta, Maine. I had only seen Aunt Judy and Uncle Dave’s little cabin from postcards, but as soon as we had made the 7-hour drive up, I began to recognize that landscape at which I once marveled over Christmas: the loon sitting atop smooth gray-blue water, the craggy cliff sides with sprawling evergreens, the bay being sifted for lobster in preparation for the August festival.
Though I remember very little from this time in my life, I remember this holiday perfectly. I remember wearing a life vest that felt too big for me. I remember my first loon sighting, the flush black feathers and white dots, Aunt Judy’s hand on my shoulder, her voice–calming and sharp like mint tea and lemonade. Most of all, I remember baking a beautiful vanilla cake with buttercream frosting and then using blueberries and strawberries to paint out the American flag.
That was what the Fourth of July was to me in those days: a day to appreciate American landscapes, to be with my family, to honor a nation’s image in sugar and berries. My loyalty to this version of America felt natural; no matter where I was on July 4th, I could expect friends and family, fireworks and singing. I could expect to fall asleep in the arms of Americana, the warm hum of Suzanne Vega in my ears.
But in the intervening years between that summer in Maine and today, I’ve grown up and learned a new way of observing America’s birthday. Now, Vega’s hum has been replaced by the revolutionary calls of Nina Simone and Mitski, women at odds with their nation–women whose attitude toward America I find myself identifying with more and more. I had loved America, but the longer I lived in it, the more I realized how little it loved me back.
Where I had once seen America’s colors in berries on a cake, now I see them at the Times Square subway station, when a man pushes me towards the tracks and calls me a “muslim b*tch”. I feel America’s guiding hand when I am followed around stores, taken aside by TSA, when a teacher calls me a “threat,” when our government apparently agrees.
I take history courses in college, and I realize this attitude of subjugation and displacement is historical. It is systemic. It is as essential to that lakeside vacation as buttercream frosting and muddy ponds. And so each time I learn a new manifestation of America’s hatefulness, from redlining to voter suppression, I think of this summer in Maine–the plush blue sky, my Aunt Judy’s soft, white face. I remember not questioning that I belonged, that I was safe, that I was loved. Now, I think of how that land was pillaged, processed for profit, and taken from the people who called it home. I recall that the official name was bestowed upon the land, like a divine gift, by the very colonizers who facilitated all the violence. I recognize erasure so normalized it becomes a feature of the landscape.
Sitting by the lake with Aunt Judy that summer, we cut into the cake and Uncle Dave sipped from a glass of lemonade. Across the skyline, we caught the first flare of Independence Day fireworks. Looking back at this moment, I think carefully about my patriotism, about the beauty of those lights, their crackles and bangs, the implicit violence now unmistakable in this yearly national ritual. I know now there is a way to accept something beautiful that is beautiful as a result of historical violence, and it’s by recognizing this past violence for what it was: inextricable from the present beauty. This independence day, I’ll be watching the sky, enjoying the lights, the warmth of being surrounded by family and friends, yet all the while keeping close the knowledge of all the crimes this nation has committed. I will remember myself sitting by the lake in Maine, and I will commit myself to resisting forces that would see these crimes of history become the policy of today. I hope you’ll join me in remembering all that we have done, and now in recognition of these failures, everything we can and must do.
This piece was first published at Teen Vogue, and can be read here.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece wrongfully identified the writer as a Muslim American. She is a Hindu American.