The Paradox of the Positive: Re-Examining American Independence Day

Ever since I moved to Belfast I’ve made a point of celebrating the Fourth of July, Independence Day. While I quickly learned that the parades from my childhood don’t have the same meaning here, I clung to and adapted other traditions that were a bit more portable and less sectarianized; namely, beer and barbecued meat. Also, the wearing of red, white and blue, but done discreetly, and without obvious American flag emblems masquerading as clothing (I’m looking at you, bizarre, trying-to-be-patriotic boxer shorts).

My ‘thing’ for the holiday over here became an American Flag Cake. I’m not much of a baker, so this is just a box of Betty Crocker instant brownie mix with cream cheese frosting and topped with strawberries and blueberries in the same of the flag. It is delicious, patriotic and dripping with fat and sugar – perfectly American.

As a migrant, keeping up with some sort of ritual around national holidays is a way of trying to stay connected to my home country. Lacking in physical connection to the places and people who make up national family holidays like the 4th of July or Thanksgiving, the desire to cling to the superficial trappings of the holidays grows. I may have to hold Thanksgiving on the Saturday instead of the fourth Thursday in November, and my 4th of July barbecues might lack fireworks, but bringing what I can of those days with me helps me to feel emotionally connected to where I grew up. Equally celebrating with new friends and family here hopefully gives them a more nuanced and relatable version of what it means – for me anyway – to be American, rather than relying on overused stereotypes.

But this year things feel different. The smouldering trash fire that the United States of America has become has precluded me from finding joy in even the most token of celebrations. I barbecued no meat. I made no Flag Cake. I only drank one beer (old habits die hard). But even this stuck in my throat as I was unable to tear my mind from racist immigration bans.

Children in cages.

The gutting of union rights.

The potential fall of Roe v Wade and the criminalization of abortion.

And really, I shouldn’t be able to tear my mind from them. There should be no room for frivolity when nursing babies are being torn from their mother’s breasts and held in a cage, not washed for three months. When pregnant women are being shackled and abused, then denied medical attention when they miscarry in immigration detention facilities. When families are being told that in order to see their children again they must agree to ‘self-deport’ back to countries riven by violence and poverty – conditions made in the USA; one of our oldest and best-known exports. When we are staring down the barrel of the likely overturning of Roe v Wade, which made access to abortion a constitutional right, and the return of backstreet abortions and deaths of women – mostly poor women and women of colour – who can neither afford to travel nor afford to order pills online (we know too much about this particular reality in Northern Ireland).

But however dire things are now, we are actually closer to the norm for the history of the US than we would like to believe or remember. We are a nation of immigrants, sure, but we built our nation on stolen native land using the brutal tools of genocide and slavery, and then enacted racist immigration laws to keep other immigrants out. We detained an entire group of people in camps because we were fighting their home country. We built a criminal justice system that is an extension of slavery and continues to incarcerate people of colour at higher rates than anyone else. We continue to export war, poverty, religious extremism (American religious fundamentalists are funding and fuelling criminalisation of LGBTQI+ communities in Africa and the criminalisation and demonization of abortion in Ireland, north and south, to name but a few of their efforts), corruption and violence around the world.

This has been stated many times over and much more eloquently by others – most notably and perhaps first by Frederick Douglass in his speech ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?’, delivered at the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society on 5 July 1852, a time when slavery was still legal in the US. In it he explores how positive statements about ‘American values’ such as freedom and liberty were an offense to the enslaved people of the US, who were utterly denied these rights while also being continually exploited, tortured and oppressed.

This ‘paradox of the positive’ – highlighting how something meant to be positive can exclude certain groups and individuals – has been an enduring theme of America. While we vaunt our ideals of equal citizenship and freedom of thought, religion and speech, we simultaneously systematically exclude certain groups that those in power deem unworthy. Modern American society and politics has no greater example of this than a bitter fight over immigration, a literal exclusion of people whose oppression we have at least contributed to, if not directly caused, from the freedoms and values that we ostensibly hold so dear as Americans.

What could these values – often distilled into the ‘American dream’ – possibly mean to people trying to escape violent gangs and extreme poverty in Central America, only to have their families further ripped apart upon arrival in a place that has more than enough to shelter them? What could they possibly mean to black Americans whose bodies, voices and communities are so systematically targeted by every aspect of our white hegemonic society, until even asserting that their very lives matter is met with derision, and simple acts of getting a coffee or having a paper route are criminalised and met with further violence? What could these values of the indivisible freedoms of men possibly mean to the generations of women whose bodies were controlled and demonized and whose daughters and granddaughters now face a return to a time when not just abortion, but contraception was also illegal?

Independence Day needs urgently re-examined. As migrants, we often compare parts of our new home with our old one, finding there are positives and negatives in both places. I don’t like the school system in Northern Ireland, but at least there’s no risk of my children being shot in their classrooms. I hate how there (usually) is a complete lack of summer here, but I dearly love and appreciate the NHS. Both places have a terrible track record in how they treat immigrants and women in general, and so neither are immune to the paradox of the positive and excluding certain groups from enjoyment of its defining freedoms.

But I still love my home country, and it is that love and the perspective that distance provides that I feel I must reassess how I celebrate things like the Fourth of July.  It is, perhaps, a more patriotic pastime.


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