Especially when complicated words like “independence” and “declaration” are involved.
But it’s good for them to know why their neighbors are lighting fireworks and that the rat-a-tat they hear after dark is just to celebrate. They may have heard a rat-a-tat before when it wasn’t good news.
The couple I spend a couple hours a week with to help with their English studies, is from Somalia via a refugee camp in Kenya. They already know that America means safety. And an education for their children and medical care that makes their children healthier than the nieces and nephews still in Africa.
They’ve figured out the money and the driving and the red tape. Some of the red tape, that is.
They now understand a bit more about a few of our odder traditions like Halloween and April Fool’s Day and some of our more religious holidays like Christmas and yes, Thanksgiving.
We’ve studied a bit more about American history and politics lately, as the father of the family hopes one day to become a citizen and is beginning preparations for the test. When I told him about how if we don’t like a senator or governor, we vote for somebody else and the one we didn’t like is out, he was amazed and amused at the same time.
When we talked about succession of the presidency, and I told him the vice president had indeed become president twice in my lifetime and why it happened, he was shocked. Who would shoot the president he wanted to know, someone inside the country or outside?
He was stunned at my answer. He knows how many stripes are on the flag and what the stars stand for. He knows who the first president was and, of course, who is president now.
Lately, we’ve talked about colonies and England and kings.
He already knew kings create problems. I told him to “declare” is to say something strongly. Something you really mean.
I told him his young children are dependent. They need him for food, for a home, for clothing, for protection. They depend on him.
My older children don’t need those things from me anymore. They can get them on their own. They are independent.
America didn’t need England, I told him. We didn’t want a king. We wanted to make our own rules, find our own way in the world so on July 4, 1776, we declared it in the words of Thomas Jefferson. We declared independence.
And today we still have it.
Not only independence but what came thereafter: government by the people and for the people.
We’ll talk about that government over the next year. About the system of balances, about terms and judges and states with governors.
But to me, sitting with a family that came from Africa 230-some years after independence to find protection and safety, improved health and education, is reason to celebrate the success of a grand undertaking. America did something that few nations had done to that point and some still haven’t.
We decided to govern ourselves and though it’s a system fraught with dissension and discussion and debate and disagreement, we’ve made it work.
I asked him about the government in Somalia. Everybody wants to be the government, he said. Everybody fights. Everybody dies, he said.
I will thrill, with everyone, as the fireworks explode overhead to the music of American anthems.
But even more, when I think of my ancestors who came to this land almost 400 years ago, and the others who came 100 years ago, and my Somali friends who came only recently, I will be grateful. I will be grateful that it has been a land of freedom, of safety and of opportunity. A land, “under God,” that, over these many years and still today, has meant “liberty and justice… for all.”