On July 4th 1976, I was perched atop my father’s shoulders, my bronzed six-year-old legs straddling his neck. I wore tennis shoes that marked my feet Left and Right. My father worked his way through the throng of people gathered en masse on the grassy lawn of the National Mall that spans almost two miles between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol.
We were downtown for the bicentennial celebration – the 200th birthday of the United States of America. Our family was one among several that had rented a single hotel room for the night to share, near L’Enfant Plaza, so we could take part in this historic occasion. As a kid, and to this day, I don’t like crowds. But I felt safe atop my father’s shoulders as he strode purposefully through the mob.
From a very early age, I was acutely aware of how lucky I was to be born in America. My first television memory is of Nixon resigning – my mom ironing in front of our black-and-white T.V. and letting out a little whoop of celebration – and what little I understood, I somehow knew that this meant that even the most powerful man in the country was accountable to us, the people.
I was also aware that my parents had different politics – my mother always supporting whoever was the Democrat, and my father whoever was the Republican candidate for President. Ironically, although there were other issues in my parents’ marriage that ultimately led to their divorce, politics wasn’t one of them, and they took their polarized opinions in stride. They would hand-emblazon political placards on our lawn, “Susan says . . . VOTE FOR” and a few meters away, “David says VOTE FOR.”
There were some things my Dem-Mom and Libertarian-Dad agreed upon: my brother and I were to have only “gender neutral” toys – no Barbies, no guns, nothing pink nor camouflage. (Ironically, my brother would go on to join the military.) I was never a girlie-girl to begin with but I remember being miffed when I was forbidden from reading one of my favorite picture books; in the book, the father and son rode in the front of the car, the mother and daughter in the back. That sort of subliminal sexist messaging would not do in my family. But I argued to my parents that my rights were being violated by their censorship, and they acquiesced to letting me repeatedly check out the offensive book from the library. There was justice in our home, as there was throughout the land.
My father instilled in me a healthy suspicion of authority, organized religion and the government, and an appreciation for provable science. I would defiantly clamp my mouth shut for “under God” when we recited the Pledge of Allegiance in school. My mother taught me to champion the underdog, and to be inclusive of people of all races, religions and backgrounds. When I turned six, she invited to my birthday party – to which I’d only been allowed to have a few friends – Byron Foreman, a black kid, new to my school and someone I hardly knew. I remember blowing out the candles on my cake and wishing Byron were not there. I didn’t understand why my mother would invite someone who wasn’t a friend of mine – and a boy no less! – to my birthday party. But later she explained, matter-of-factly, that Byron was the only black child in my class, one among three in the entire school in fact, and that it was important that we, as a family, show him and everyone else that he was welcome in our community and in our home.
I distinctly remember learning in school about the separation of power in our government and the checks and balances on each of the three branches. I remember thinking that this system was brilliant and infallible, the same way when my brother and I fought over the last piece of cake, my parents would say, “One of you cuts, and the other chooses.” There was no way to cheat the system.
When I read in social studies about dictators and despots throughout history, I remember feeling grateful that I had been born in the United States of America, and confident that something like that could never happen here.
The July 4th celebration has always been a big deal in Washington, a massive public gathering of residents of D.C., Maryland and Virginia and even people from the Midwest or California who descend upon the nation’s capital to mark and celebrate the birth of our country and its hard-won independence. It’s always been an egalitarian affair too – for the people.
But 2019 was different. President Donald J. Trump turned July 4th into a restricted and ticketed event, distributing VIP tickets to Republican donors and political appointees, and directing the National Park Service to divert nearly 2.5 million taxpayer dollars to fund a preposterous military extravaganza he had planned. When D.C Mayor Muriel Bowser made clear that the District would not foot the bill for inevitable damage that would be done to our roads by Bradley tanks, I thought, thank God there are still people who will still stand up to this moron.
Since President Donald Trump was sworn into office, I have watched, we all have watched, not simply an erosion of, but a systematic war waged upon the very pillars of our democracy. Each attack has been at one and the same time expected and yet totally unprecedented. Those of us who believed that the U.S. constitution and democratic safeguards like separation of power, and checks and balances, were sacrosanct have been continually caught off guard.
In fact we’ve been proved wrong. All of those things, we learned over the past several days during a trial with no witnesses nor documents (a charade worthy of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, or the DPRK) are not sacrosanct at all. Rather, they are irrelevant. Illusory. Yesterday, the point was driven home by Senate Republicans; our democracy never really existed at all.
If you had told my six-year-old self, balanced on my father’s shoulders, looking out over the massive crowd, eagerly awaiting nightfall and the fireworks, that when I was an adult, and had children of my own, America would be a sad scary place from which I would want to escape, I never would have believed it.
At the age of six, I may still have needed shoes to tell me Left from Right, but even then I understood Right from Wrong. I would have known then what I know now – that what is happening in, and to, America is wrong.
Like many kids in the seventies, I knew all the words to Don McLean’s American Pie, and would belt them out along with my friends whenever the song came on the radio. We would start out slow and soft . . . A long long time ago I can still remember how That music used to make me smile . . . But February made me shiver With every paper I’d deliver Bad news on the doorstep . . . but soon we’d be competing to out-sing each other, finally almost shouting And while Lennon read a book on Marx! All of us laughing and jostling each other, confident in who and where we were. American kids, growing up in America.
Yesterday, the music died. I can remember, and I always will, that I cried.