Angela Lankford is a college writing teacher, aspiring young adult novelist, and lover of vegging out on a bit of reality TV.  

“O, beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain . . .”

Ray Charles’ recording of “America the Beautiful” sang out from the TV as my mom looked over to me and said, “Are you ready to go?” Every Fourth of July, the two of us would sneak out of our family’s annual gathering to head down to the park that sat at the edge of the Potomac River. At the waterfront, when we looked to the north, we could see the spotlights glowing off the magnificent dome of the U.S. Capitol at night, as boats cruised slowly down the river.

As Virginia natives, we knew that trying to head into D.C. to see the annual fireworks display meant you’d be surrounded by a sea of people, but at our special waterfront’s edge, it was like we got our own private show. And if you listened hard enough, you could hear the sounds of the U.S. Marine band playing “Stars and Stripes Forever” off in the distance.

Growing up, I remember waiting in restless anticipation for the Fourth of July. On the Fourth, everything that I loved came together to create the perfect day, complete with parades, history, fireworks, cookouts, festive music, and apple pie. To me, the Fourth always embodied the true essence of summer and why the hotter months were the best time to be alive during a calendar year. The darkness of winter was gone, the sun was shining in all its glory, and the days lasted longer, bringing you wondrous memories, adventures and firsts.

Each year when I stood at the Potomac, watching the fireworks across the river, I’d soak in the wonder. I’d turn to my mom and say: “One day, I’m going to go into D.C. and watch the Capitol Fourth Celebration live.”

“Good luck with all the people,” she’d laugh.

“I don’t care, I’m doing it! And I’m going to bring my future husband there.”

She’d smile, probably thinking I was crazy, but she’d always say: “One day, I hope you can reach that dream.”

For me, the Fourth of July inspired a sense of romance. I quickly found that on a Fourth of July night, you could believe that anything was possible as you watch flashes of brightly colored lights circle in the air in unbelievable patterns that can be seen for miles on end. To me, these feelings embodied the very founding ideals of the nation itself. Our founding fathers created a land where we could all truly believe that anything was possible. They created the American spirit on that day in 1776 that inspired the countless dreamers and hard workers that our country sees as uniquely our own.

As an African-American girl, I clung to these notions of the American spirit, but at the same time, I found that many saw it as ironic that Fourth of July was my favorite holiday.

“Why do you even like the Fourth?” my fellow black classmates would say. “What has this country ever done for you?”

When I was younger, I never quite knew the answer to these questions. It was no secret that at one point in our history the country had not allowed African Americans these same dreams and the freedoms that the country was founded on. But, the way that I saw it, many worked hard to grant me those freedoms now. If anything, the Fourth of July celebrated America’s ability to accept and to change. Those words that Ray Charles sung were just as much my own (and his!) as any other American’s, regardless of color, religion, or any other factors that people say divide us.

In all honesty, it was the spirit of the Fourth of July and its fireworks that pushed me to keep dreaming and to see myself as more than what some in the world might see because these fireworks were different, just like me. They held meaning and purpose that was present not just in their appearance alone, but in what they stood for — fireworks are a great unifier, after all; they bring the most unlikely of crews together.

Whenever I watched a Fourth of July firework fly through the sky as a child, I felt happiness, pride and hope for reasons that I could just never fully explain. As I watched the sky illuminate with colors and light, I always found myself wishing that those good feelings that they brought would just never go away, so I always loved and dreaded the finale.

During the fireworks finale, the echoing bombs and high-flying lights blended with intricate patterns that peeked through a sea of smoke, always fascinating and exciting me. But as the last fireworks set off in the distance and the smoke cleared, I’d feel the disappointment set in as the small crowd watching with us in our secret spot walked away. I’d remind myself to try so hard to hold on to those feelings and remember them for a year. I wanted to keep those warm fuzzies, those feelings of hope and pure joy alive forever. I wanted to always remember why each day I walked proud and tall as an American because of the courage and strength of the founders that we celebrated on this day.  

Now, as an adult, I sit cross-legged next to my husband on a blanket awaiting the Fourth of July fireworks in our town each year. Our first date was on the Fourth of July when we sat and stared up in wonder at the start of what, we didn’t realize then, would be our destiny and the beginnings of a life together. Today, whenever I see a firework on the Fourth, I feel that same giddy anticipation I felt as a child. In hard times, I think of the innocence, warmth and comfort a Fourth of July firework can bring.