My 13 Year Old Daughter is a Better American than I Am
Today was the 4th of July, and right now I’m sitting in my kitchen at the end of the day, everyone else asleep, surrounded by the leftover yellow crackers and the salami we didn’t eat or put back in the fridge. The empty wine bottles and water glasses sit to my right. The now room temperature macaroni salad on my left, and it’s going straight in the fridge, I swear, right after I steal one last midnight bite. And I’m feeling the need to share that this was a very emotional day.
It was an emotional day partly because, after the burgers and dogs, the chicken, and that mishap with the grille, we watched Hamilton. In case you didn’t know, we can all watch Hamilton now, if we choose, on Disney+ right beside baby Yoda. You can stream a brilliant filming of the original cast performing on stage in New York City. It’s a powerful show. As a friend of mine posted on Facebook, “I started and thought, American history in rap, well that’s interesting…and by the intermission… and quite possibly brilliant! And then by the end I just cried.”
But emotional only partly because of Hamilton. What really made the day emotional was the middle of it, just before we watched. I sat on the living room couch with both my kids, on a blanket we use to cover the cushions that desperately need Stanley Steamer, cozy as can be. My youngest, Malcolm, hunched at the far end making shooting noises along with his latest video game, my daughter Kaylie curled up between us. At the other end of the couch I was off in my head somewhere, thinking about the marinade, or maybe how much chicken to put on, and did we have enough for everyone… I don’t remember. But I do recall the moment I felt Kaylie shaking.
At first I assumed she was laughing, but no. She was sobbing. Big silent sobs, the kind that make you shrug your shoulders and won’t let go. When I asked what was wrong, she looked at me with overflowing, puffy eyes, and she said she didn’t feel right celebrating our country when so many people didn’t have the same rights that we did. And then she paused. No, that’s not right, she said. They have them. Everybody has rights, but not everyone’s rights are being upheld like they’re supposed to be. And how could we celebrate… just… like nothing was wrong… and then she cried harder, until tears swallowed her words.
My son picked this moment to chime in. He didn’t look up from his video game, but he did pat her absently with one hand, “Right. That’s not right (you see, he’d picked up on that part where Kaylie corrected herself and therefore had been wrong, that got his attention), everyone has rights, but I’d say it’s more like we have to make sure everyone gets them.” The world’s troubles all settled, Malcolm returned to his game.
But Kaylie said back, “Yeah, Malcolm, that’s what I said. Everyone has rights because they’re a person, but our country... we’re… not upholding everyone’s rights the same.” And then she turned to me, a question in her big wet, red eyes, eyes all filled with faith that I, DAD, knew all the answers. And of course I don’t, I hardly know how I’m going to handle tomorrow.
I tried my best to answer. I told her she was right, as a country in our history, America has done a lot ugly, wrong things. But we are also the country that has built into its very fabric, from inception, mechanisms for improvement. And we’ve used them and continue to do so. But yes, while the founders were brilliant men and women, some of them did horrible, wrong things as well.
“Some? More like most of them!” she said. And I agreed, yes, you’re right. And it sucks that the moral arc of the universe is long, but we’re fighting now to be and do better. And that’s what the protests are all about, fighting to change for the better. About insisting on it and making the collective will of We the People known, that we demand equality for all. This is democracy in action. It’s scary because yes, we the people is a messy, unfair, desperate, painful, slow business. And, yes, there are many, many people who do not have equal justice and equal opportunity, and yes it is deeply wrong that there are wrongs to right.
And I talked with her about a bunch of other things, trying to get to the heart of a feeling in my chest about a country I love so dearly, and a history I find shameful but necessary to face directly. I said a lot of words. I even told personal parables about trying to give blood at Beekman hospital in the disaster zone on 9/11, and how it wasn’t needed… and I don’t remember what else I fumbled about trying to say. I’m quite sure I did a very bad, fumbly dad job of it all.
Until I remembered Mr. Rodgers.
I repeated to Kaylie that old chestnut, like it was my own fresh wisdom: “Look for the helpers. See all the people, out in the streets, trying to help. Working to help. Wanting to help.” (I suspect this was the impulse behind my 9/11 anecdote, so far astray from our 4th of July discussion I’m sure I confused her with it). Again I almost gave up hunting words for that feeling… until I also remembered a poem. A poem a dear, dear friend first shared with me.
So I told Kaylie that I believed that the America we’re all working so hard to help be better is not a thing at all, not something that ever, really was. It’s an evolving, collective dream kept alive through the generations. A dream of who we, as a people, should be. Who we can be.
And just as Hamilton and his comrades-in-arms fought, and planned, and worked to birth our nation… For me the 4th of July had become, over the years, not a celebration of what was, not a remembrance of past events, but a reminder and an admonition that every day, each in our own way, we too must fight, and work, and plan with our comrades-in-arms to give birth to an even better nation than yesterday’s. And that’s a struggle we must pick up every morning of every, single day.
Kaylie wanted to hear the poem, so I called it up on my iPhone (repository of all human knowledge) and, to a background of pew pew pew arghhh gotcha yeah! pew crash pew, we read it together.
Sometimes I said the words and sometimes she took over, because I’ll admit I choked up a lot. When we finished, Kaylie looked at me, wiped away a tear and said, “Daddy I’m okay with celebrating the 4th of July, as long as while we do we know and we don’t forget not everyone has all their rights yet like we do.”
So yes, my 13 year old kid is a better American than I am, because… well, I was all about the potato salad until she reminded me what kind of American I really want to be.
This is the poem we shared:
Let America Be America Again
Langston Hughes 1902-1967
Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. Let it be the pioneer on the plain Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed— Let it be that great strong land of love Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, But opportunity is real, and life is free, Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There's never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars. I am the red man driven from the land, I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek— And finding only the same old stupid plan Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope, Tangled in that ancient endless chain Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land! Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need! Of work the men! Of take the pay! Of owning everything for one's own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil. I am the worker sold to the machine. I am the Negro, servant to you all. I am the people, humble, hungry, mean— Hungry yet today despite the dream. Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers! I am the man who never got ahead, The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream In the Old World while still a serf of kings, Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true, That even yet its mighty daring sings In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned That's made America the land it has become. O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas In search of what I meant to be my home— For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore, And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea, And torn from Black Africa's strand I came To build a "homeland of the free."
Who said the free? Not me? Surely not me? The millions on relief today? The millions shot down when we strike? The millions who have nothing for our pay? For all the dreams we've dreamed And all the songs we've sung And all the hopes we've held And all the flags we've hung, The millions who have nothing for our pay— Except the dream that's almost dead today.
O, let America be America again— The land that never has been yet— And yet must be—the land where every man is free. The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME— Who made America, Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain, Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose— The steel of freedom does not stain. From those who live like leeches on the people's lives, We must take back our land again, America!
O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath— America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, We, the people, must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain— All, all the stretch of these great green states— And make America again!