My dad, my brother and I used to sit in our backyard after it got dark on the 4th of July and watch the fireworks. We lived at the top of a hill in a small, rural town in upstate New York, overlooking a forest that tumbled down a steep hill toward the rest of the town. We sat in white plastic chairs out on the lawn and looked up over the forest where, each year, those quintessential American explosives — paradoxically illegal and ubiquitous — lit up the sky.
It was the highlight of my summer. Not because of the incredible sounds the fireworks made, which seized my attention and refused to give it back until they were finished, nor because of the colors, which were certainly impressive in their ethereal impossibility — elaborate, neon patterns across a pitch black sky. I loved the Fourth of July because we got to stay up late, because we got to sit outside and listen to the crickets and watch the fireflies, because we could just be there with my dad staring out silently, enjoying vicariously the neighbors’ pool parties on the other side of their fence, pretending for that night that I was an adult and that my unquenchable questions about the infinity of stars draped over us were valid and worth pondering out there with him for as long as the cacophony lasted.
It was cacophony. A week before July 4th each year my family would go to Hanofee Park for our town’s official fireworks display. We’d arrive around seven o’clock and spread out a blanket on a patch of grass, in the proximity of family friends, elementary school teachers, the popular kids and their older siblings we never dared talk to and always wished we could be around. We’d eat the picnic dinner my mom had prepared, maybe explore the park a bit, kicking around a soccer ball or watching musicians twang on the temporary stage. Then it would get dark, and we’d return to our quilt, and as the fireworks began, my mom and my brother would head for the car. The fireworks were launched only a couple hundred yards from where we sat, and my brother was afraid of the noise at such close range.
The noise was unfathomably loud. The first boom signaled the launch, a lone gunshot that promised to birth ten or twelve more a couple seconds later. When the projectile reached its apogee up over the lake, above where we all waited in suspense, we braced for the sudden chain of deafening pounds, our necks craned far back, some of us lying supine so as to get the full spectacle of the sky. It went like this for twenty minutes or so, until the finale, when the launchers — local firefighters — discarded all pretense of patience and method, deploying every last one of their fireworks in rapid succession. This produced a barrage of fire that shattered the sky over and over again. The earth spasmed, pounded, and if you looked away from the explosions themselves you could actually see the ground quake while the lights of the fireworks flashed over the crowd and through the trees, like thousands of photographs were being taken by cameras the size of clouds. I held my fingers to my ears to protect myself. The colors themselves became predictable and excessive — I yearned for a pause, to prove that I could still hear, that the dark sky still existed. Years later, when my brother was no longer was afraid, he would stay out on the blanket with me and my dad, while my mother dragged our dog away, knowing she would soon cower in mortal fear on the floor of the backseat.
The symbolism of the American firework is so obvious that it tends to escape any reflection. Though I was raised in the north woods, in the midst of patriot-land, in the annual thrall of those brilliant fluorescent colors, I never really got it until I became an adult. And as an adult I don’t know if I would have really gotten it if I hadn’t heard Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner some 40 years after his famous 1969 Woodstock performance. When he plays it, I am first struck by how Hendrix does not invite the crowd’s inevitable reaction to his choice of song; he knows they will roar with approval or protest or something in between, but he looks only down, at his electric guitar, his expression pensive and privately rueful, for only he knows what he is about to play. During the first interlude Hendrix’s guitar devolves into squeals, and he mimics the sounds the instrument is making by mock-shouting with his mouth — at first I wonder if maybe he’s trying to be funny, is he trying to evoke effeminacy? — but then the squeals become shrieks and moans that I interpret two ways, first as the American bomber’s blithe disregard for the impact his tools will have, and then, with more surety, the victims’ cries in the immediate aftermath of the campaign. In 1969 there were more U.S. soldiers in Vietnam than any other year of that war. It was the beginning of a vicious year-long campaign that saw the murder of thousands of Cambodian civilians, and a series of air assaults against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong that would yield mass casualties on both sides and reinforce the general sense of doubt around U.S. motivations and strategy, back home. That doubt would turn into bitterness and protestation. Hendrix’s guitar’s screams become a dance of distortion, the shouting of discordant notes and then the crash of noise and static that I understand to be the bombs themselves. In Francis Scott Key’s lyrics, the bombs burst in the air, but in Hendrix’s they strike the ground, and the people that dwell there.
Once I entered teenagedom I stopped enjoying the Fourth of July. I didn’t have any great critique of the holiday or U.S. militarism abroad, I just began to see it as a loud, obnoxious day when we all got excited over some dumb explosives. I grew up around kids who went nuts about explosives. I attended sleepover parties in which kids threw little poppers at the ground, and when they collided with concrete they exploded and produced a faint gas. You threw them at your friends’ feet to scare the shit out of them. I sat through a year of chemistry class in which the only prayer the teacher had of engaging us was when he poured certain chemicals together into an Erlenmayer flask so that they exploded and overflowed onto the desk; otherwise we understood the class to be irrelevant to life. Over spring break in college, I drove to Georgia each year with my ultimate frisbee team, and we always stopped at South of the Border, that hellish mega-emporium of racist stereotypes and endless purchasable junk, where my friends had to buy the fireworks that were suddenly legal now that we were beyond the North Carolina state line. I don’t know what my friends ever did with them, but they had them, and that was what was important. Indeed, half the glory of getting fireworks is merely having them, showing them to people — it is sort of a threat, a show of power. When you actually set off fireworks you have to do it away from people for safety reasons, so the cachet one enjoys in having and doing a firework is not in the moment of release but in the preliminary flaunting. Which in itself is anti-climactic: you probably wouldn’t even know what they were if it were not for the bright, aggressive imagery on the packaging.
Last night, July 4, 2017, I stood on a Downtown Brooklyn rooftop with six friends in a throng of people jockeying for a good position to see the fireworks that would explode over the East River. As it turned out, no one could see them, because all the high-rises that have been built here in the last 10 years blocked out most lines of sight northward, so we were shifting and edging and craning for nothing. We quickly gave up and sat down to play cards and talk. The supposed sounds of individual freedom and collective liberty echoed somewhere nearby. Every once in a while we saw a flash of light and a cloud of smoke in the reflection of a skyscraper, and we stopped to look at that, but mostly I forgot all about the occasion, as I’d intended to all along.
For me, forgetting is a defense mechanism. I forget in order to defend against the knowledge of what the symbolic holiday actually memorializes — the violence, the hideous nationalism, the historical erasure and the propagandistic lies. Forgetting is a way of not having to bore and upset people with what I know the Fourth of July to actually be about; it’s also, unfortunately, one way in which I insist on emphasizing the negative rather than envisioning how the U.S. is also, every day, a thing of beauty in the face of all odds. I think temporary forgetting can be healthy, but it needs to be replaced by a committed kind of imagining and a simple togetherness that can take place in a family’s backyard, a town park or an urban rooftop. One concrete thing we might replace is our collective national obsession with explosives. And I don’t mean the ones you buy in the store on July 4th. This is how you change symbolism: change first the political realities that ultimately provide fodder for the metaphor. Then perhaps the colorful explosions will begin to mean something different, though the holiday will retain its celebration.