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What, to an Immigrant, is the Fourth of July?

It’s July 4th, and after nearly 30 years of living in this country, I still don’t feel comfortable celebrating. I wasn’t born here. My independence came through another country, so what exactly am I celebrating? Do I have the right to celebrate?

Flag on the Gate House, Central Park

I’m conflicted.

I came to America as an adult, convinced that being here would afford me a better life, and it has.

But like a child caught between two parents – the parent who gave her birth and the one who adopted her – I struggle to detach, to give myself permission to love the new parent as unconditionally as I love the “real” one and not feel like a betrayal. So I sit on the fence unable to fully embrace the new parent, reserving that secret part of my heart for the real one.

Some would argue that my position has probably been detrimental. By not fully committing, I’ve kept myself from engaging.  But being familiar only with the mores and lexicon of the real parent, how does one fully engage?

I’ve involved myself in the things I believe in: volunteering to teach and mentor, campaigning and voting for candidates I support, demonstrating for causes I feel strongly about, and buying and selling property. I’ve done my best to be a good citizen.

So what will it take for me to feel like I’m really part of the family, to feel like I have the right to celebrate? Is it length of time or giving myself permission?

Would coming here at a younger age and going to school have helped me form stronger bonds or teach me to decode the lingo, the secret hand signals? I wonder.

I’ve also wondered if having children to shepherd through the “system,” children who could potentially force me to commit, would have made a difference. Probably.

Add to the complexity of my internal conflict, the fact that the household I chose used to own people like me, and a whole new layer of emotional baggage is added to the mix.

When I lived in Washington, D.C., routinely around the holiday, I’d hear black people refer to July 4th as the 4th of You Lie. It sounded catchy but it was said with such cynicism and disdain, I knew it had to be serious.

July 4th is the day of celebration of the colony gaining its independence from Britain but for nearly 100 years more, blacks remained chattel slaves until December 6, 1865 when the Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery was ratified.

Frederick Douglass summed it up best when, in 1852, he posed the question that still hangs in the air nearly 160 years later, What to the slave is your fourth of July?

Today, I’m asking, What, to a first generation immigrant like me, is the true meaning of the fourth of July?