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The Fourth of July

In Cape Town, the fourth of July came and went without much fanfare or notice. We groggily ate at our toast and yogurt just like any other morning. We wished each other good days at work, like usual, adding a half-hearted “Happy Fourth of July.” “Oh yeah,” a few people said, having forgotten it was our Independence Day.

The Fourth of July was a busy day in our office. We were rushing to meet an important deadline on Friday. We needed to collect stories from workers to use in a speech, so I spent my day in a factory in a township of Cape Town, talking to five different workers. We laughed together about the crazy things their kids did and about the best parts of our favorite movies. We chatted about their working conditions, wages, and hours. We listened as they told difficult stories about death, assault, sickness, and raising children alone.

On the drive back to our office, we passed a car accident. My co-worker, Lisa, said “I’m not going to look. I couldn’t stand to see a body.”

Our driver replied, “Lisa, where do you live? All the coulored areas of Cape Town that I know have bodies all over the ground. Shouldn’t you be used to it?”

Only an hour later, Sheridan and I walked around a body on the way to the bus stop. He might have been the victim of a hit and run or countless other tragedies. We weren’t sure. All we knew was that a paramedic van had just arrived and his leg was bending the wrong way and he was lying too still. Too eerily still. So still that his chest wasn’t rising or falling.

We arced our path to walk around him without a word. We didn’t know that he was dead for sure, but I was overcome with a dreadful, unshakeable feeling that he was. Neither of us spoke as we continued our walk to the bus, waited, and climbed on. We continued in silence to the station where we transfer to another bus. In our rattled state, we ended up boarding the wrong bus. It wasn’t until much later, when we passed a cliff I didn’t recognize, that we broke our silence to correct the error.

I hadn’t thought about the Fourth of July all day except for when a co-worker said, “Hey, it’s your Independence Day, isn’t it?” and Sheridan replied, “Yes, but I’m not very proud to be American right now.”

Many people on our program decided to go out to a July 4th theme night at a bar, but after struggling to hold myself together while telling the story of our walk to the bus stop, I decided to stay in. I didn’t feel like celebrating a holiday that felt so foreign, so superfluous.

I opened social media and saw my friends posting pictures of themselves at barbeques and cook-outs, decked out in red, white, and blue. I scrolled through pictures of beaches and fireworks, camp-outs and hot dogs.

But all I could do was think about the man on the sidewalk—the man in South Africa who had died on the fourth of July. The image was seared into my mind in incredible detail. I wondered what his name was. I wondered who his family and friends were. I wondered who cared deeply about him. I wondered who knew his favorite ice cream flavor and how he took his coffee and the way his eyebrows arched when he was thinking. I wondered who would miss him.

I found myself wishing I could be among my carefree friends watching fireworks on beaches, eating cheeseburgers and playing whiffle ball instead of curled up in my bed in Cape Town mourning a man I hadn’t known.

I thought about Sheridan saying that she wasn’t proud to be American. I considered whether or not I was proud to be an American. I am not proud of our history of slavery, imperialism, colonialism, and segregation. I am not proud of our rampant racism, inequality, and suffering. In fact, I am deeply ashamed and angered. However, I am proud of all of the Americans, past and present, who have dedicated their lives to fighting for justice and equality. I am proud of the memories that wash over me when I watch fireworks. I am proud singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame during the Seventh Inning Stretch at Durham Bulls games. I am proud when my grandmother cooks up collard greens and butter beans.*

Being in South Africa has taught me that I can both be proud of a place and fight tirelessly to change it. After detailing emotional personal stories of death, structural inequality, and pain, one woman I interviewed said she was “proudly South African.” Many people I meet here seem to share her sentiment. They are deeply proud of where they come from, even if that place has bodies in the street. I think I am still proud of America, even if I am deeply ashamed of and pained by our own bodies in the street. Because of this mix of pride and shame, I will work as hard as I can to ensure my country is one day a place where every person who lives within its borders can feel proud.

I recognize that I am privileged to feel any American pride at all. I recognize that many have been actively and violently barred from feeling pride in the United States. Therefore, my pride is not a complacent pride, but rather a restless pride. It is a pride that demands action.

*I realize these are all quite stereotypical associations with Americanness or American culture. The truth is, as a white, middle-class American raised in the South, I had a pretty stereotypical American childhood. However, I think that there are an infinite number of equally valid ways to be American that don’t involve baseball and apple pie.

The Fifth of July

I was born on the fifth of July, which means that my birthday has always been irretrievably connected to the Fourth. Memories of my birthday also rouse memories of fireworks, sparklers, bonfires, parades, bare feet, hot dogs, hamburgers, and barbeque (the Eastern North Carolina kind doused in vinegar, of course). I’ve never minded the association, but instead savor the summer heat and buzz of activity.

Throughout my life, I’ve only had two birthdays that were not connected to this holiday. The first was when I turned 10 while my family was living in Kenya. The second was a few days ago, when I turned 20 in South Africa. It looks like I’ll need to come back to Africa when I turn 30 for the sake of continuity.

It seems appropriate that I’ve passed into each new decade of life on another continent. A change in space for a change in time. A physical representation of the turbulent difference a decade makes.

On my 20th birthday, I came to the conclusion that if you ever need to test the strength of the relationships you’ve formed, have a birthday. On July 5th this year, I realized how deeply people who I’ve only known for a few weeks care about me.

Before I left for work, I’d already received countless hugs and “Happy Birthdays” from other Duke Engage students. When I arrived at work, my co-worker, Lisa, sang happy birthday in full while dancing at her desk. Another co-worker, Veronica, ran to me, hugged me, and also proceeded to sing. Moments like these happened all day.

July 5th was another busy day as we worked to reach our deadline. I interviewed two more people over the phone. Both interviews were tremendously emotional, each making me tear up. After we finished, my boss asked me to follow up with two of the women I’d interviewed the day before. I asked them my follow-up questions and when I was finished, they stopped me from hanging up, saying, “Just one more thing. Happy birthday!” They proceeded to sing to me over the phone. I couldn’t believe they’d remembered our brief conversation about my birthday the day before. One of the women even went out of her way to share with me what she had noticed about my character in just our few hour interviews. Their thoughtfulness and kindness made my day.

As I worked on typing up the interview transcripts, Sam, the IT guy, came running in, saying that there was a fax machine emergency and I was needed right away. I have never used a fax machine in my life, so knew I wouldn’t be any help, but he dragged me over anyways. When I arrived, I realized I’d been ambushed with a birthday celebration. The entire staff sang to me: first in English, then in Afrikaans, and then in three more languages for good measure. Simon, my boss, gave a quick speech. It was so meaningful that he had noticed so much about who I am as a person in a few short weeks.

After that, everyone hugged me again and we all enjoyed a chocolate mousse cake together, a cake that Sam swore would make me want to move to South Africa permanently. The office was bursting with evident joy. Even though everyone had plenty of work to complete before the deadline, they took the time to make my day special.

After work, I went to watch a stunning sunset on Signal Hill with my friends from Duke Engage. Afterwards, we all went to an Ethiopian restaurant on my request. After enjoying delicious food, the servers came out with ice cream, a small gift, and cinnamon sticks they had lit on fire as candles. I tried to blow them out, nearly lighting Olivia on fire in the process. Evidently, cinnamon stick candles are best extinguished with a bucket of water rather than blowing. Lesson learned. Once again, I was touched by the thoughtfulness of strangers who went out of their way for me, finding a dessert they don’t usually serve, figuring out make-shift candles, and even giving me a gift.

Throughout my birthday, I was reminded of the last stanza in a poem I had read earlier that week called “[how much of the map]” by Francine Sterle. I don’t remember the rest of the poem, but the last stanza was as follows:

every threshold is sacred

 the eternal allure

 of what comes next

Every threshold is sacred. I’ve encountered so many thresholds this summer: a new country, new cities, a new job, and a new decade of life, to name a few.

Turning 20 felt sacred. The relationships, the hugs, the happy birthdays, the songs in numerous languages, the postcard perfect sunset, and the flaming cinnamon sticks were all sacred.

And I know I’m coming across as schmaltzy. I apologize. Earlier this week, after my boss asked me to compile a list of quotes, he joked that a few of the quotes I found were too schmaltzy to use. I joked back that sometimes life can be schmaltzy. My birthday was a schmaltzy kind of day.

While looking into the precipice that is 20 is frightening, it is also thrilling. It’s an adventure. It’s an eternal allure of what comes next. I can’t wait to see.