CNN | 8/11/2020 | Listen

Reborn on the 4th of July

Updated 3:41 PM ET, Fri July 3, 2020

Editor's Note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. He will soon publish a memoir, Borges and Me, an account of his travels in the highlands of Scotland in 1971 with Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian writer. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

(CNN) - Every American is reborn on the 4th of July. It's not for nothing that our great forebear, Henry David Thoreau, chose this holiday to set off by himself with a borrowed horse and wagon into the deep woods at Walden Pond. He left behind a small town in Massachusetts draped in flags.

Governor Charles Sumner had called this day a "national sabbath," but Thoreau was desperate to leave behind a people suffering from "lives of quiet desperation." The urge to separate himself from this national despair propelled him into the wilderness, where he could "front the essentials" of life.

Every 4th of July, I sense a strong impulse to celebrate my own independence, and I feel connected to our rich American tradition, with its commitment to "liberty and justice for all." This is not just rhetoric, or should not be. Americans must mean what they say. It's important, nonetheless, to remember that European settlers in early 17th-century America displaced the native population to create their own version of civilization, and this land grab wasn't pretty.

By the late eighteenth century, these colonists wished to get rid of their own overlords, the British. A "tea party" was formed in 1773 -- an early example of civil disobedience and symbolic protest not unlike those who recently took to the streets in the Black Lives Matter movement -- and Boston harbor was awash in precious cargo.

In fact, the American Revolution had been brewing for a few years -- beginning with the death of Crispus Attucks, who was part Black and part Native American. He is widely regarded as the first casualty of the rebellion.

Is there an irony here?

I want, on this great national holiday, to understand what it really means to celebrate American independence. And I continue, despite the traumas of the past year -- a brutal pandemic, chaotic leadership in the White House, mass unemployment and racial turmoil -- to feel proud of belonging to a country "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," as Abe Lincoln declared that famous day in Gettysburg.

I'm 72, and have spent over a decade abroad at one time or another, living in Britain or Italy. I love the "old country," with its traditions and deep stability. Once or twice I considered staying abroad permanently. But something in the American spirit always called to me, this undersong of liberty and equality.

Most Americans I know value these things deeply, and they would risk their lives to perpetuate them. We love our wilderness landscape, too, and we want to preserve it. We appreciate those who, braver than we, are willing to spend a night in jail in order to speak truth to power, much like Henry David Thoreau, who left his cabin at Walden and spent a night in the Concord jail for refusing to pay his poll tax.

He objected to many things about the US government, including its willingness to put up with slavery. "I cannot for an instant my government [that] which is the slave's government also," he wrote.

In 1849 he published his essay known as "On Civil Disobedience," which would offer a blueprint to both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

When I look with sadness at those in this country who harbor racist attitudes, I try not to despair. Slavery was a long and terrible stain on this country, destroying the souls of millions of Black people as well as their White oppressors. And the racist impulse hardly ended with the Civil War.

The Jim Crow era continued for decades, as free Black men and women were pushed to the back of the bus, lynched, left to languish in rotten schools, punished because of their skin color. Black Wall Street was burned in Tulsa in 1921, one of many such incidents. And the oppression of Black men and women continues to this day, as seen in the horrendous killing of George Floyd, which has stunned the whole world.

Despite the present misery around us, I'm a little more hopeful today than I've been in years. I teach at a college, and I'm awe-stricken by the young people I meet in the classroom, who have quite simply lost all patience with racism. They understand that most White people have barely an inkling about what Black and brown Americans put up with every day, and how hard it remains to get ahead if you're a person of color.

On this 4th of July, I want to recommit myself to genuine patriotism (not small-minded nationalism, which is simply the urge to dominate those unlike ourselves). I admire our love of liberty and equality. I value freedom of speech and our commitment to all religious practice. I revel in the beauties of our natural landscape and our urge to maintain its purity.

Patriotism is a willingness to revel in our independent nature, our hatred of oppression in any form or manifestation, our willingness to take to the streets when we must.

This is a nation of immigrants and has been from the outset. My own grandparents came to this country from Italy, driven by a wish to escape the economic and social brutalities that impoverished their lives. And I grew up among families from a vast array of cultures.

This country can fairly be described as a crazy quilt of many colors and ethnicities, and that remains its glory, its real strength -- even though many Americans refuse to admit it, preferring the safety and myopic seclusion that White privilege and money makes possible for them.

There is much to love here, despite the problems that beset these often disunited States of America. And much to celebrate and to preserve, including the idea of liberty and justice for all people.

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