The Best 4th of July Essay I’ve Yet Read
And a Runner Up
Jay Kuo is another Substack author whom I respect. His essay today, pasted below, I thought was spot on for our current times. Kuo’s short bio: “Admitted before the Supreme Court and 9th Circuit. A.B. In Political Science (Stanford) J.D. (UC Berkeley). Board member, Human Rights Campaign. CEO of The Social Edge. Composer of Allegiance on Broadway.”
Here’s the link to his Substack:
I urge you to subscribe.
A very close runner up for me is Robert Reich’s True patriotism is the opposite of Trump’s White Christian Nationalism, Reich’s Substack post for the Fourth of July. It is spot on—as are all his columns and lectures (on Youtube). Reich is a brilliant and prolific economist and educator, and a former U.S. Secretary of Labor. (He is also famously, self-deprecatingly, and endearingly short of stature (due to a rare genetic disease), living proof that brilliance can come in small packages…
Keep to the high ground,
Here’s Jay Kuo, but don’t forget to click and read Reich as well.
by Jay Kuo
Today, a personal essay.
When I was little, my Ba would bring out fireworks for the Fourth of July. He acquired them in places like Maryland, where our family would go summer camping on the state beaches, and brought them across state lines to our little suburban enclave in upstate New York. As soon as it was dark enough out, many of our neighbors would gather, the area kids eager to see what Mr. Kuo had in store that year. Sparklers for sure. Sometimes big noisemakers. And always more than a few showstopper rockets with brilliant flourishes of color. He would hand them out to us to dole out to the other children without a thought to liability.
The 1970s were a crazy time.
It didn’t occur to me until much later that there was some irony here. We were the only Chinese American household in the area. With four kids and a house on the corner of two main streets, our family was the center of activity for Tioga Terrace. And on July 4, Ba would bring the magic, developed centuries ago by people who looked like us, gunpowder mixed carefully with binding and coloring agents, bringing wonder and delight.
I understood we were celebrating the independence of America from the British Crown, and I most clearly remember the bicentennial celebration that took place in 1976. Our schools had focused heavily on American history that year, yet most of my understanding of what had transpired 200 years before still came from watching our Founding Fathers sing about it in the movie 1776.
Musical theatre has always been in my DNA.
In that merry portrayal, the heroes of the revolution were towering figures: debonair, erudite, romantic, able to find gallows humor at the darkest of hours. I remember best the musical number around whether slavery should be condemned in the words of the Declaration. It was a terrifying and bewildering song. What did molasses and rum and Bibles have to do with Roots? And I remember vividly poor Thomas Jefferson, the author of that brilliant document, being called out for still practicing slavery on his property.
“I have already resolved to release my slaves,” said a quietly thoughtful Jefferson.
I sincerely believed that earnest and brave man, who thrilled his colleagues with the playing of his violin, his adoring wife Martha swooning to the tune. He was a noble man, to be admired.
We didn’t learn the real truth about Jefferson, or about any of the Founding Fathers, in class. And it wasn’t taught to me in college either, even though I was a political science major. The first person to challenge my view of our any of the Founders was a Black colleague I met during my RA training, who had brought up that we don’t ever teach real history. She cited the story of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, one of the many slaves he owned—a girl he had raped when she was just 14 years old.
I didn’t want to believe it. The Declaration of Independence, and its famous author, were sacred in my mind. The principles they espoused were of the highest order. And in my mind, July 4th was my favorite holiday, next to Christmas. For one day, Ba was cooler than all the other dads, and at least for that day we were the most popular kids in the neighborhood, even though we were not fully American—at least, that’s how it had always felt.
Once the veil was pierced, however, the truth began to burn holes through my mind. I began to question a great deal of the mythology that had been spoonfed to me, really to all of us. Christopher Columbus, that was a shocker. Manifest Destiny. The Chinese Exclusion Act. The Tulsa Massacre. The internment of Japanese Americans. With each revelation, it was hard not to become deeply and irretrievably cynical about our history and the way our country has always acted toward the most vulnerable in America.
There’s a strange thing that happens when you come out the other end of all that. I began to wonder how they did it. How did people like Frederick Douglass, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and even my own hero George Takei still have anything left of faith and belief in this country, after all it had done to them, their families, their communities?
“We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
That all people are equal. That we all possess “unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Those words were revolutionary in their time. And they indeed spawned a revolution. Despite my great disillusionment, they still inspire and hold true for me today. That’s the power of the enduring promise of America. Not that we will always, or even most of the time, get things right, or that we won’t stumble our way into dark and nearly hopeless chapters of genocide, slavery, internment, and yes, growing Christofascism today.
Loving the promise of America isn’t the same as loving what it has done and still does to break that promise, over and over. But I’ve come to appreciate the high value of maintaining our gaze upon that North Star, the one that still shines for liberation, fairness and equality. That the promise has now endured nearly 250 years speaks to our collective and deep desire for hope, even in the face of broad and dehumanizing injustice and inequity.
The America that our white, propertied, slave-holding male Founders envisioned isn’t what we’ve got today. But that’s because we’ve improved upon that vision. For me, the America of tomorrow is a truly multi-racial, multi-denominational, pluralistic democracy, a place of opportunity and prosperity, with no one left behind. That is the vision that sustains me. It’s the one where my Chinese father could hand out fireworks on July 4 to excited, white kids and seem the most American of all the dads.
We inherited both a sacred promise and a big mess from those who came before, and we’re still working on both. That fact that it is so very hard, and we have so very far still to go, is strong evidence of the incredible value of that promise. This is evidenced in great part by how fiercely others will fight with all they have to keep us from it.
But nothing worth fighting for was ever won without a fight. And in the end, the enemies of our unalienable rights will fail. That is the faith I keep.
Happy Independence Day. Our fight continues.