My civics students taught me how to honor an imperfect country on the Fourth of July

Human beings are worthy of love even when they disappoint us. Are nations?

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“I don’t celebrate the Fourth of July,” my student Charlene announced in class. “How can I? It’s their celebration, it’s your celebration, but it’s not mine, it’s not my family’s.”

Charlene’s honesty opened up a conversation that shapes how I teach and think about America. Human beings, I remind my students, are worthy of love, even when they disappoint us. But are nations? Can we celebrate, can we love, an imperfect country?

Tamara Mann Tweel (Courtesy photo)

Each summer, I teach New York City public high school students in Columbia University’s Freedom and Citizenship program, a pathway-to-college initiative that offers low-income students an opportunity to study pivotal texts in civic life. And each summer, we read Pericles’ Funeral Oration and recite the words, “fix your eyes upon the greatness of Athens, until you become filled with the love of her….” My students love their friends, family members, moro de habichuelas, certain novels, certain sports teams — sometimes even the Yankees. But only on occasion would they extend this love to America — a place that they feel has disappointed, even betrayed, them. This is a feeling that arises from hardship, be it eviction, false accusations, the incarceration of family members, food insecurity, or the deportation of their sole caregiver.

Patriotism, or love of one’s country, has never had a simple place in my classroom. The story of America looks different to each student, depending in part on whether their ancestors arrived on this land by force or by choice. As a professor of civic education, it is my responsibility to get the balance right, somehow to find a way to usher students into a democratic tradition that is worthy of their affection and honest to their experience. 

I invited Charlene to share more about why she chooses not to celebrate. She reflected and responded softly, “I don’t feel that America wants me. I don’t feel that America is for me. It’s for rich people.” “But don’t you think you are going to get rich one day?” Jon piped up. “Isn’t that why we are here studying over the summer?” “We’ll never be rich,” lamented Mike. “But is money everything?” Natasha weighed in, noting that there had been war and hunger where she came from, and America offered her family more stability and opportunity. “Isn’t that enough to celebrate?” she wondered. Rose responded that she, too, was grateful to live in America, with its free summer programs and its college scholarships. 

“We’re the exception, Rose, and even then, it’s only temporary,” responded Charlene. “My uncle is in prison. We taste freedom, and then it disappears, again and again.” We don’t really live in a free country, she explained. We live in a country that “dangles freedom.”

“Class,” I jumped in, “let’s look at the next assigned reading, a speech by Frederick Douglass, delivered almost two centuries ago in commemoration of the Fourth of July.”

That day we read Douglass out loud, each taking a paragraph and standing up when the words resonated. Charlene stood and recited: 

“The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.” 

Charlene pointed out Douglass’ use of “you” and “your.” Rose said Douglass understood what it’s like to be close to something you want, like freedom or prosperity — so close it almost taunts you. The beauty of the aspirations and the possibility of success makes our hardship even worse, explained Malik. “Is that what it means to be American?” he asked. “I never thought about it that way. To be stolen, to be beaten, and then to be confronted with the truth that for other people this is freedom, they feel free while we feel … battered?”

“I don’t think that’s fully true,” Jamal responded, pointing out Douglass’ admiration for parts of America’s founding, citing how he called the Declaration of Independence “the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny ... The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.” Douglass wants us to stick to the principles in the Declaration, liberty and equality. “He is showing us how to really celebrate  — no, ‘celebrate’ is the wrong word — how to keep July Fourth,” Jamal said. “We think about what we are supposed to be about.”

“Professor Tweel,” Charlene looked up at Jamal and the class, explaining that she wants to read Douglass aloud each year on July Fourth — and we, as a class, made a pact to do just that.  Douglass knew how hard it is to see freedom so close and not be able to make it your own, she said. He also knew that this country will only be strong and noble if we hold to its ideals and point out again and again when we all fall short. 

This July Fourth, I will honor our classroom pact made years earlier and participate in a national ritual that can contain disappointment, admonition, hope, and purpose. I will recite the Declaration of Independence, and I will recite Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” I will recall with pride the voices of students in my classroom who struggle with the reality of America and still attach themselves to its promise. My students taught me how to keep the Fourth, how to celebrate, and how to love an imperfect country. 

The students’ names have been changed. 

Dr. Tamara Mann Tweel is the Program Director of Civic Initiatives at the Teagle Foundation. She is the co-founder of Civic Spirit and a Fellow of the Kogod Research Center at Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.