Like any big festival, 4th of July is about first losing yourself, then finding yourself in the crowd. It’s an experience that can sometimes result in moments of meaningful transcendence when individuality expresses itself as part of greater humanity. But it can also explode in protest, when the individual recognizes their own self-worth and takes a stand for their rights. It can take the form of individuals in dire situations, who maintain a hope for the future where it would be easy to give up. And yet they persevere.
We all have memories, gorgeous conceptions of this day. From what it means on a larger scale as Americans to the modern-day traditions associated with the holiday. For every person filled with childlike wonder at the spectacle of fireworks there is an adult weary of the sparkle and clamor of the celebration’s chief export. And since this is America, where everyone gets to choose how to spend their time, a solo barbecue to an indie rock soundtrack is as good a way of celebrating as any. America invites all perspectives, so this 4th of July we crowdsourced some words from literature and song that soar above the soundbites and express something greater than themselves – and ourselves.
Jessica Monk, Contributing Editor
Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. – Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave and author was asked to give a speech in Rochester, New York for the 4th of July celebrations, 1852 — eleven years before the abolition of slavery. He used it as an opportunity to mastermind a righteous attack on the hypocrisy of a nation who held the liberty of human beings to be a self-evident truth, and yet had allowed the fugitive slave law of 1850 to be passed by Congress. Douglass’ speech is delivered with the pure rage of a man who had lived his truth and found no alternative but to fight for his own liberty. He showed America that just as there was no way back for an escaped slave who had declared his independence, so America too, after shaking off its own oppressor had no alternative but to live according to the principles that had freed the nation.
This urgency of progress is what Douglass gave back to America, 76 years after the founding of the nation. He told America in no uncertain terms that the world was changing due to technology and communications, that it was no longer a closed, oppressive prison. And that America would have to keep up with this new open world by reexamining their commitment to freedom. Freedom, for an escaped slave, was not an easy word to cast around. 150 years after the emancipation of slaves, Douglass’ words inspire Americans to keep close to the pulse of freedom as a living thing, rather than just a graceful ideal.
Antoinette Weil, Marketing Coordinator
Freedom has its life in the hearts, the actions, the spirit of men and so it must be daily earned and refreshed – else like a flower cut from its life-giving roots, it will wither and die. -Dwight Eisenhower
On the Fourth of July you can find me poolside, Bar-B-Qing, watching fireworks and drinking a few cold ones with my closest friends and family. Relaxing with my favorite people is how I like to spend my holiday. But in thinking about the meaning of Independence Day, what it’s all about is freedom and liberty. In looking for words to celebrate this American holiday I could find none truer than Eisenhower’s words. For each of us has a role to play in making this nation work. Each of us has an individual responsibility to take part in the system to ensure that it stays strong. A mass of people working for each other and for themselves. I know it may not seem very literary to quote a former president. But for me this is freedom, these words are liberty, and this is Independence Day.
Caitlin O’ Hara, Editorial Intern
Besides, They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed— I, too, am America.
– Langston Hughes, “I, Too, Sing America”
In 1945, roughly 20 years before the Civil Rights movement would come to a head in America, Langston Hughes was a major part of creating the feeling that would define African American nationalism. Hughes doesn’t denounce America, he relays a powerful, positive certainty that change awaits. Almost 70 years later, the last words of his poem “I, Too, Sing America” resonate in an America embroiled in the gay marriage debate. I am proud to live in a state that has seen the light for almost 10 years, and have faith that our country will slowly but surely follow, bit by bit. It is because of the hopeful certainty of Americans like Hughes that the fight for rights becomes a peaceful, beautiful reality.
Amanda Festa, Managing Editor
Today’s the fourth of July
Another June has gone by.
And when they light up our town I just think,
What a waste of gunpowder and sky. – Aimee Mann, “4th of July”
Since I am patriotic, but also a fan of angsty female rock vocalists, I am drawn to rock goddess Aimee Mann’s 1993 song “4th of July.” The song is classic 90s — mellow, brooding, and in my head she is wearing flannel when singing it — but it also sums up my secret shame surrounding the Fourth.
I love celebrating America’s birthday and all that Independence Day stands for. I feel incredibly fortunate for my life and my freedoms. I am always available to partake in BBQ or beach day, and I really enjoy wearing clothing fashioned out of the American flag — but when it comes to the 4th of July there is one tradition that I don’t quite understand. I don’t like fireworks. There, I said it. This is covered in that free speech thing we are celebrating, right? I was born and raised in Boston, I did the Boston Pops Esplanade hoopla as a child, and I think it had the opposite effect on me than it did on most. I think the large, slow-moving droves of people craning their necks and pushing and shoving their way closer (It’s in the sky, people, you don’t have to move forward, just look up) have sufficiently outweighed the aesthetic. Yes, I’ve seen the finale. It’s just a lot of them at once. I understand they are a big deal to a lot of people (absolutely everyone except me), and I will feign excitement if my 3-year-old nephew looks my way during the display — I am not a 4th of July Scrooge, I swear. But, Independence Day is about more than just fireworks — and at 237 years old, we have a lot to celebrate. I’ll be over here, with my American flag jean shorts and Sam Adams Summer Ale. Cheers, America!
Jamie Worcester, Editorial Intern
They had pattern and sequence, colour and sound, brilliance and mobility; they had suspense, surprise, and a faint hint of danger; above all, they had the supreme quality of transience, which puts the keenest edge on beauty and makes it touch some spring in the heart which more enduring excellences cannot reach. – Jan Struther, Mrs. Miniver
Growing up, the evening of July 4th was always spent on my grandfather’s boat anchored out on the Long Island Sound. Good food and anticipation always awaited me on those evenings spent with the family. Being on a boat, we avoided the traffic of cars and beach chairs, of wild revelers and antsy children, and had the best seats for this community spectacle. We were rocked by the ocean and deafened by the sounds of fireworks launching. What I remember most is waiting for the grand finale. Nothing trumps a grand finale.
Tatsiana Litvinskaya, Editorial Intern
I’m proud to be an American – Lee Greenwood
I had often heard the phrase “Proud to be an American” and didn’t know that it was from a famous song back in the 80s sung by Lee Greenwood. I celebrated my first 4th of July in 2009, just a month after I came to the U.S. I had culture shock, experiencing how different this country is from my home country. On the 4th of July, friends and I went to the Charles River, a favorite place for Bostonians to watch fireworks. Thousands of people were gathered there with tents, chairs, sport mats, ready to spend time and have fun.
When the time came, people stood up, put their hands on their hearts and started to sing. I don’t know exactly what they sang — I couldn’t make out the words in such a mix of many voices, and my English wasn’t good, but my friends and I tried to join in with the crowd anyway. At that moment I experienced an unbelievable few seconds of happiness, luck, and blessing that I came to this country. I felt myself to be an American, and I could sincerely relate to the words of Lee Greenwood, I was indeed “proud to be American.” Happy Independence Day, America!
Alice Pinero, Editorial Intern
I came to this country without a penny. I went to medical school. I’m a psychiatrist, a psychoanalyst. That’s America. That’s America. – Holocaust survivor Henri Parens, from America’s Table.
Like so many others during WWII, Henri Parens and his family fell victim to Nazi rule. When he was twelve, his mother put his name on a clandestine list of children to be transported from France to America. He recounts memories of his final goodbyes to his family and his arrival by ship to New York City after successfully slipping free of Hitler’s grasp. Henri landed in America alongside many other young escapees, knowing no one, with no money, and no idea where to go. His success story is one that truly accentuates the infinite possibilities provided by America. It was a safe haven and new beginning for Henri and remains to this day synonymous with “the home of the free” and “the land of opportunity.” As we begin to celebrate the Fourth of July, it is essential to acknowledge and appreciate these boundless liberties with which our country has blessed us. May the Statue of Liberty remain forever, as it did for Henri many years ago, the threshold to safety and hope in times of hardship and adversity.
From all of us at Literary Traveler — Happy 4th of July!!