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July Fourth: A bittersweet reminder of a dream deferred

two Black people wrapped in an American flag
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Juste is a researcher at the Movement Advancement Project and author of the reportFreedom Under Fire: The Far Right's Battle to Control America.”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.”
— Langston Hughes, I Too

On the Fourth of July we celebrated many things: our nation’s independence, our democracy and the opportunity to gather with loved ones who, ideally, embrace us for who we are. Yet, this same nation does not always make room for us to live freely for who we are, who we love, what we look like and how we pray. And it is this dissonance that renders the Fourth of July’s celebration a bittersweet reminder of a dream deferred for many of us.

In this unprecedented time when our fundamental rights and democracy itself are under threat, I reflect on why, as a queer Black woman and proud child of immigrants, I found myself feeling more anxious than celebratory over the holiday and, crucially, what I am going to do about it.

Of course, it is logical that people whose ancestors have been disenfranchised since day one would experience a bit of internal conflict on a day dedicated to celebrating freedom. How are we to commemorate one of the greatest political experiments ever tried while knowing its goal was only to secure freedoms for a privileged few?

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So many have been kept at arms’ length from the country’s power, wealth and benefits: Indigenous nations were forcibly subsumed into a hostile and stolen America; African Americans were initially denied freedom and opportunities for prosperity, equality and full civic participation after the Civil War; women were denied the right to vote and their bodily autonomy; immigrants face dehumanization while often being forced to take more dangerous or menial jobs; nonbelievers and practitioners of faiths other than Christianity have been stigmatized, excluded, and even attacked; queer people have often been relegated to the margins of society and at times confronted with unspeakable violence and inequality; and today, transgender people are being forced to sit at the epicenter of an outrageous fear-mongering campaign led by the far right.

The list of this nation’s sins is long and too many have been denied the equal protection of our laws. It is a story as old as America itself.

Many of these historical injustices persist, though in new, sometimes more discrete forms. The far right has steadfastly pursued policies to ensure that so many of us remain socially, politically and economically marginalized. Yet I fear many have grown complacent.

We have won victories for freedom and inclusion. But students of history know that there always comes a backlash. We are now living amidst a backlash to progress, and it is transforming the policy landscape for the worse. For example, nine states have passed laws allowing legislatures to seize power over the administration of elections since false claims of voter fraud ran rampant after the 2020 presidential contest; 14 states have enacted total bans on abortion, with an additional seven states banning abortion within a range of sixto 18 weeks of pregnancy (i.e. before many people are even aware that they are pregnant); and 24 states have passed bans on best practice medical care for transgender youth, with six going so far as to make it a felony to provide care. These and so many other recent policy changes limit Americans’ freedoms, offering yet more reminders of why it is often difficult to bask uncritically in Fourth of July celebrations.

In a nation that supposedly places freedom on the highest pedestal, freedom only for some is not really liberty, but instead a charade thinly masking that freedom is no more than a fickle privilege, begrudgingly given and easily taken away. And make no mistake, our freedoms are under fire. Today they may be mine and the freedoms of others like me, but tomorrow they may very well be yours. From restricting access to life-saving health care to banning books, censoring historically accurate education and creating multiple insidious barriers to the ballot box, these attacks on our freedoms are both implicitly connected and part of an explicitly coordinated effort to enact strict control over American life.

Still, I consider myself a patriot. Despite the myriad ways it has at times failed me and so many others, I love my country. The word “patriot” has been co-opted by those working in coordination to erode civil rights protections for women, people of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants and more. These individuals would have you believe that refusing to uphold a hierarchy with white, straight, cisgender, Christian and natural born citizens at the top is unpatriotic by definition. Their definition would certainly exclude me, and perhaps you too, from what they consider to be the “real America.” This narrow view of patriotism is not only a misunderstanding of the concept, but also fails to include the most crucial implication of patriotism: To truly love one’s country, in its full complexity and unfinished work, means that one feels an obligation to improve it.

Despite what those on the far right might think — and despite their efforts to erase our country’s history – some of the greatest patriots come from the very communities they continue to sideline. Black Americans risked their lives to make America a greater nation by fighting for civil rights, women navigated a maze of glass ceilings to move us toward gender equity and people of varied spiritual beliefs have collaborated on an interfaith basis to preserve the separation of church and state. Making America more inclusive, democratic and free can be difficult work, and yet people try every day. This, to me, is patriotism.

It can be draining to love this country when we are not loved the same way in return. People deserve liberty no matter who they are. But the fact is that many contended with fear and anxiety on July Fourth because our freedoms and ability to pursue our happiness are in jeopardy. And yet, despite these feelings of unease, I caution hope over despair and implore action over paralysis.

This moment is stark, but do not let it steal your hope; let it be a wake-up call! People who love this nation have always pushed to expand our freedoms and include more communities in the project of establishing a more perfect union.

Independence Day is simply a reminder that we each still have the opportunity to impact this

country, and to hold it to the highest standards. Do not allow the far right to remake this country into one where they can dictate what you or your fellow Americans can, do, think or say, or the decisions that you can make about your body. Exercise your fundamental rights, while you still have them: Use your freedoms of speech, assembly and voting to bring about the best that this nation can be. It is not too late.

As for me, though at times it is painful, I do love this country. And to honor this love, I refuse to stop fighting fiercely to hold this nation to its founding promises, owed not just to the privileged few, but to every single one of us. I invite everyone who loves this country to do the same.

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