In Eaton’s Neck, NY, holidays are not taken lightly. Easter, Christmas, Fourth of July — you name it, and there is an over-the-top celebration. Easter this year, for example, involved a man in a monstrously large bunny outfit flinging candy into peoples’ yards from atop a firetruck. The horn blared for minutes on end, children screamed in joy and coffee-carrying parents attempted to decipher why seven different fire alarms were sounding all at once.
The Fourth of July is even worse. Crowds gather on Eaton’s Neck Road, the town’s main street, chattering excitedly as they wait for the much-anticipated parade to begin. Growing up, my family was always on Long Island for Fourth of July. We would stand, slathered up in sunscreen and armed with bottles of water, opposite the house with the green shutters: my dad’s childhood home. We would crane our necks at the sound of a horn and cheer as the first car, decked out in red white and blue, rolled down the street. Later would come the World War II veterans and the old ladies in ridiculous purple hats who call themselves the High Tide Hatters, then a big white duck, who would quack happily as he marched in front of the police department. When the fire trucks arrived, they would throw candy at us and unleash the wrath of the water hoses on innocent spectators. We’d go back to the firehouse for a cookout, our baseball caps overflowing with lollipops and smarties. We’d skillfully avoid the mean old fireman who always overpoliced the ice cream cart and then go home to wait for the fireworks. “This is like a slice of old-fashioned Americana,” Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-NY) told the local newspaper one year.
And it is. The 1950s station wagons, purple hearts and star-spangled banners are reminiscent of patriotism from another era; small towns like Eaton’s Neck suffered tremendously during World War II and the Korean War, and locals became accustomed to celebrating the efforts of their sons and nephews towards freedom. My grandfather fought in Korea, and his brothers fought in Normandy; patriotism is the glue that holds communities like these together. And it’s easy to be patriotic in a town that is 98.13% white. White men were the primary party represented in the Declaration of Independence, when the United States of America declared itself a free nation — effectively excluding enslaved people, women, non-landowners and other minorities.
Thus, I am not feeling particularly patriotic. I am especially not interested in celebrating a holiday centered around freedom from oppressive government when that freedom is not a reality for so many people in this country. It seems entirely naive to be honoring our freedoms and rights as Americans when so many people are battling the systemic racism that IS our country — an institution that precludes freedom for so many Americans. Not to mention the coronavirus pandemic would make joining a crowd of people clustered on a narrow road downright dangerous.
I’m not alone in my reluctance to celebrate; a Pew Research Center poll found that 83% of Americans do not feel proud of their country right now. Nobody seems to be interested in brandishing an American flag and proclaiming their love for their nation — not when black people are murdered by the police on an almost daily basis. Furthermore, the president refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Black Lives Matter movement and riles up racists daily in the name of patriotism. If patriotism has become synonymous with racism, I don’t want anything to do with it. Not to mention, Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic is nothing worth celebrating. This year has been both a presidential and nationwide failure on innumerable fronts, and that, in my opinion, does not merit a parade.
The other night at dinner my grandmother announced that, because of COVID-19, the parade would be much smaller this year. It would mostly consist of people standing in their meticulously groomed front lawns, waving at the firefighters as they zoom by on their trucks. The people of Eaton’s Neck are far more concerned with COVID-19 than they are with the ongoing battle against racism — possibly because African Americans make up only 0.22% of the town’s population. I’ve noticed that when people or their communities aren’t directly affected by a problem like racism or police brutality, they treat it very passively. Unwarranted speeding tickets are the main issue Eaton’s Neck residents have with the police! Coronavirus aside, I’d bet that the majority of residents would condemn racism but be hesitant to do anything when it comes to actually canceling the parade in the name of racial justice.
I have nothing but fond memories of the Fourth of July. Part of me longs for the days spent in blissful ignorance, drenched in hose water and clutching a rocket pop, covering my ears as fireworks erupt practically on top of me. However, I am looking forward to a reflective Fourth of July, a day when I can delve deeper into the histories of those not represented under the Declaration of Independence. We can’t erase the past; however, we can work to transform the Fourth of July into a holiday of education and reflection, one in which we discuss and learn about the people excluded from the original American dream of independence. I’m planning on channelling my anger and exhaustion with this holiday — and country in general — into phone calls, petitions, emails and donations so that maybe someday we will be able to celebrate the freedom of all people.
Contact Sophia Peyser at speyser21 ‘at’ spenceschool.org.