I had the great honor and privilege of being asked to be this year's Patriotic Speaker at the 59th annual Claremont neighborhood July 4th Parade in Berkeley, California. Each year since 1961, hundreds of neighbors have gathered to celebrate Independence Day with a parade, patriotic songs, entertainment and a guest speaker. The assignment is to deliver a "patriotic and uplifting speech" on the meaning of the day. I found the challenge a little bit daunting, given recent events. This year, the entire celebration had to be virtual, with the parade canceled and the performances and speeches recorded and posted on YouTube instead. Here's what I chose to say.
Friends and neighbors, my fellow Americans,
Today, the United States of America is 244 years old. Like many double centenarians, she is showing her age. This year, it’s more than the usual aches and pains and creaky joints that come with being almost a quarter of a millennium old. No, at 244, America can no longer see. She can’t hear. She’s fallen and she can’t get up.
Luckily, this country was founded by resilient people. Many of them were racist, genocidal, puritanical zealots, yes, but no one can doubt their pluck and resolve. And over the course of those 200+ years, her genetic makeup has been improved by the arrival of so many others from all over the world, generations of people just as determined and self-reliant as those first settlers, but with a more enlightened and ennobled view of the world around them and the people in it.
So today, as America lights the candles on a cake that she no longer has enough teeth to eat, we are here, standing ready to help her back to her feet. She’s been knocked flat before. She was torn apart by a Civil War that nearly killed her. She’s endured financial panics and deadly pandemics. In my father’s time, she had to fight back against the double roundhouse punch of a dire Depression and the existential threat of Nazism. So I’m here to declare that America does have the gumption to not only survive 2020, but to be rejuvenated by it, to emerge a stronger, better nation.
There is no sugarcoating what we’ve been through these last four months. We’ve lost beloved family and dear friends and neighbors. Our very way of life has spun into confusion and chaos. We’ve all had to make extraordinary sacrifices for the greater good. And just as we settled into a new way of being in the world, that world was ripped apart again, by yet another senseless, inexplicable, horrifying illustration of how much America has yet to learn.
But look how we’ve responded. How many miles we’ve walked through this neighborhood. How many smiles we’ve shared with neighbors we hadn’t met before. How many new nooks and crannies and front yard idiosyncrasies and garden gnomes we’ve discovered that we’d never had the time to notice. How many helping hands we’ve extended to feed and nurture those in desperate, dire need. How bravely so many of us have placed ourselves in harm’s way to help our fellow citizens survive.
And how many of us have raised our voices to say, it is time that America gets cataract surgery, and a better hearing aid, so that she can, at long last, see, and hear, and listen, to the very people who helped make her what she is, and can transform her into a greater version of herself. We may never be able to right historic wrongs, but we can certainly make sure she treads a different path in the centuries to come. We can read her the words of the new prophets, written in chalk on the sidewalks of this neighborhood. So many of our ancestors came here to be free. Too many others had their freedom stolen and were forced to help an uncaring America fulfill her dreams, while it obliterated theirs. But today, we must move forward as one, not ignoring our divisions, pretending racism doesn’t exist, but learning from them, healing them and, someday, closing them for good.
At 244, let us hope America is ready, finally, to truly become the land of the free. These last months have proven, yet again, she is already the home of the brave.
Happy Birthday America. Let us help you to your feet.