MAXWELL:  “Citizens by choice’ honor the Fourth

7/1/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


The Fourth of July is probably America’s most significant non-religious holiday.

When I say “significant,” I am not referring to the holiday’s contribution to capitalism, the profits of fireworks manufacturers and dealers and other industries that cater to such festivities.

Nor am I talking exclusively about how the day lets average citizens celebrate the nation’s independence from England.

July Fourth is important because, of all of our holidays, it lets us reaffirm our patriotism without our being jingoistic, and it lets us celebrate the viability of the world’s greatest experiment in democracy.

All that said, I believe that the contemporary significance of the Fourth of July is best measured, not by the sentiments of people born American, but by the sentiments of those who choose to become citizens.

My job often brings me to agricultural towns where immigrants make up large portions of the local population. Patriotism (love of the nation and its ideals) and citizenship (actively participating in the process of government) are strong among farm workers who have become citizens.

Several years ago, I spent part of the Fourth of July with a Haitian family in Fort Lauderdale that lived next door to my sister. The father, a vegetable picker, had become a citizen the year before. He flew American flags from each corner of the modest house the family had recently bought. They did not have fireworks. They celebrated with song, dance, food and drink. In tortured English, the oldest daughter sang something that vaguely resembled Yankee Doodle Dandy. She had learned the song in middle school.

Other new “citizens by choice,” such as Acenett Peters here at the St. Petersburg Times, also see the Fourth of July as a special time. “I always had my American flag, and I always put it up,” said Peters, a native Panamanian who has been a U.S. citizen for nearly two years. “Now, I feel like I am an American. My boys were born here. I have the right to vote. I feel the essence of being an American.”

Carolina McCourt, 39, another native Panamanian, became a U.S. citizen to help her mother immigrate to this country. “At first, being an American citizen meant paperwork on my mother’s behalf,” she said. “Now that I am an American citizen, I am very proud. We always celebrated the Fourth of July, went to the fireworks and made a big picnic at home. Now, though, we feel like a real American family. I am very proud to be an American citizen. My husband is an American citizen. My two children were born here, and they are American citizens.”

As an American black, I celebrate the Fourth of July. Mine is a celebration of our rich human diversity. When I visit U.S. cities _ Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Daytona Beach, New York, Pittsburgh, Richmond, Va., Washington, D.C. _ I meet people from all over the world who have become citizens.

Their accents fill the air and their origins are announced on neon signs, in window displays, in the aromas of their cuisines. In Miami, I can travel from Little Havana to Little Haiti in a matter of minutes. These two communities seem worlds apart on the surface, but, at their core, they share a common obsession: a singular love for America.

For them and other newcomers, the Fourth of July is not an excuse to party or to get a suntan. It is not an empty tradition. Instead, it is a living reminder that they are Americans. They take nothing about their new homeland for granted.

And the Fourth of July should remind those of us born here that our lives have been enriched by these newcomers. If nothing else, they give our culture enduring vibrance and dynamism.

No other holiday gives newcomers, along with those born in the United States, the opportunity to celebrate their citizenship through music. Think of the feelings of patriotism generated by spirited renditions of You’re a Grand Old Flag and The Stars and Stripes Forever. Even those whose English is imperfect are moved.

Last year, I had the pleasure of telling a group of Mexican children in Indiantown about the significance of the red, white, and blue festooned papier-mache hats we wear on the Fourth. I also had to explain why men, especially older ones, do themselves up as Uncle Sam and why women don outfits that make them look like the Statue of Liberty. I also had to explicate the meaning of the Liberty Bell.

I helped their parents _ all studying to become citizens _ understand that the Fourth of July embodies all that is America. And for that reason alone, it is our most important secular holiday.