The Freedom to be Authentic this Fourth of July

pledge american flag

By Kate Boccia

Edited by Mark Olmsted

I was born in the Midwest from somewhat humble beginnings. At the tender age of 5 we moved to New England where I began school. Every morning we placed our right hand over our hearts and said the Pledge of Allegiance. It was so automatic that we became numb to what it really said.

“I pledge of allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.”

To this day when I see the American Flag and recite the Pledge I feel the little girl in me. The innocent young white child who thought that everyone was the same as me, that freedom, democracy, liberty and justice were equally available to all of us.

I understood my rights to free speech, freedom of assembly and association. I proudly marched up our school driveway waving banners to protest something I felt strongly about, some type of injustice that impacted my little world. My little world.

To be honest, that was the America I loved so much. The small version of it I saw from my driveway or classroom. There was no malice in having this my limited view – it was just what I knew.

Fast forward to 2018. My son has been in prison for almost 6 years.

My view of this country has expanded to see things I never really wanted to see before my son’s incarceration.  And as much as I wish he wasn’t in prison, I don’t regret finally realizing all the damage racism, poverty, and a broken criminal justice system has done to this nation.  I liken it to buying a vintage 1964 Comet and only discovering after you’ve broken down on the side of the road that it needs a new transmission, brakes, and has got a couple of nasty dents you overlooked when you bought her. You may still love the car, but not just to sit in your driveway for show. You want it to take you places.

Here’s the thing about illusions – you don’t know that’s what they are until they’re shattered. But once they’re gone, you don’t really want them back.  As unbearable as it can be to see my son behind bars, I love him now in a much more profound way having finally seen all the parts of him he hid from me, all the parts I didn’t look too hard to find, truth be told.

I can’t regret my loss of illusions about the United States, either.  I have seen in all its glare, a broken criminal justice system that primarily functions to warehouse the poor, when for far less, we could educate them out of poverty.  I have learned how real and toxic racism is and would never want to go back to that time when I secretly thought some people just had a chip on their shoulder and needed to get over it.

I was the one who needed to get over it.  I needed to realize that my accident of births were not accomplishments – I didn’t do anything but choose the right parents to be born in the United States, a Caucasian, raised speaking English. I needed to own the fact that my experience in the country would have been far different had any of these elements been different.

But learning that truth the hard way has only made me love this country more. Because a country isn’t a flag, a country is its people. And I have gotten to know so many people who were not born with my advantages but are equally as fierce in their love for their sons behind bars, mothers like me who struggle with as much guilt as I do, often while trying to put food on the table as they try mightily to be present and loving for their other children.  My own resilience through this trial of fire has amazed me, but theirs has blown me away.

I no longer feel the need to call this “the greatest country on earth,” because it doesn’t really mean anything.  (Are the Canadians, or French, or Russians supposed to feel any different about their countries?) At the same time, when I say I love my country I mean it in a way I never really meant it before. Because I love so many more Americans than I used to, people I never even thought about before by son’s ordeal. And they are some of the greatest people on Earth, of this I’m sure.

This Fourth of July will be the last I have to spend visiting my son in prison, as he gets out in October – hallelujah! All those lucky enough to be at the beach or a barbecue or a baseball game, celebrate America as you do every year, fireworks and all.  But celebrate all of her by seeing all of her – America the way she actually is, good and bad, and all the ways she could be better.

Love her authentically, in all her perfect imperfection.