July Fourth Never Meant Anything to a Disabled Black Woman Like Me

The Fourth of July has never meant much to me or my family. It was just a day that started at 7 a.m. with my mother at my door, blasting gospel music and telling me to get to work cleaning my room, “now that I had the time.” At best, it meant I got barbecue and went outside to watch my neighbors set off fireworks, just in case they accidentally set our house on fire.

As Independence Day approaches — during a pandemic that could have been avoided, one in which disabled, Black, Indigenous, and people of color are dying in droves and being denied care; in the middle of a police brutality crisis that disproportionately affects the Black community, particularly those with disabilities — the request for celebration feels like a ridiculous proposition.

Are we supposed to launch fireworks over a country that has, yet again, become a mass grave due to racism, neglect, and indifference?

The education system has reinforced how little my survival, and that of others like me, means to “my country.” I experienced it as early as elementary school, as a disabled kid living in New York City during the 9/11 era. When my school had a fire drill and other children were ushered out by teachers, I was led to a room and the door was closed on me. In the event of a fire, I was to stay in the building and wait for someone to come get me. That was apparently the school “policy” then, though after that incident my dad went to the school and fought to have the rule changed. To this day, I am more adept at going down a flight of stairs than up.

The year before I entered high school, I was locked in a church where I and other kids — Black and white — spent our Martin Luther King Jr. Day preparing care packages for incarcerated people. The kids from my Black church were visiting a predominantly white church; this was the customary show of togetherness for the day. White members of that church were standing guard behind the locked doors and peering out the window; the Klan had threatened to march in town, past the church, and we weren’t to leave before it was over. Some of the younger kids weren’t told about this. I was made aware because, like with drills for school mass shootings and fires, there was a different plan to (maybe) get me out of the building as a disabled person in the event of an emergency.

In high school, I was the only Black person in many of my classes at a predominantly white conservative Catholic high school, and one of four black people out of 400 at graduation. It’s during these years that I learned more about whitewashed history lessons.

In the lead-up to Fourth of July, lessons were centered on the country’s origin story, like the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the drafting of the U.S. Constitution — but they somehow missed the three-fifths compromise. Lessons around colonialism were whitewashed and spoke of “good slaves” and gentle slave owners, while completely neglecting the slaughter of natives. We were allowed “dress-down days” around the Fourth, but only if we wore red, white and blue. (Blue jeans and a white tee works, right?)

While many of my peers excitedly made plans to go to parades, participate in service days, and celebrate with family and church members, I marveled at the privilege. They were celebrating an America I had never seen exist.

Because of the situations I encountered and things I did to survive through my school years, I never wanted to celebrate a country in which it was necessary to hide me away so I wouldn’t be killed for the color of my skin, or to leave me as the last to be saved because of my disability. The closest I have come to chanting “USA” is murmuring along to “Sweet Caroline” at football games during my freshman year at Pitt. I remain suspicious and cautious around any American who is overtly patriotic.

As a Black disabled woman, to be asked to celebrate this holiday at all is an insult. It is an insult to all my ancestors who battled to exist freely in this country, and whose offspring are still waiting. And it’s an insult to all my experiences in a country that has systematically disenfranchised Black people and has written off disabled people as burdens.

Don’t you dare ask me to celebrate America.

Every day I celebrate those organizing for a better future — one in which black kids in a church won’t have to hide, and disabled kids aren’t left inside during school shootings. I celebrate both those willing to change the system from the inside and those ready to tear it down and build a new one. I celebrate the parts of this country that America pretends to be every day. So, no, I don’t need the Fourth of July.