Fifteen or more years ago, soon after I fled the cult in Kansas and years before I became an artist, I lived with my second (now ex) husband and three children in a densely populated suburban housing complex in Baltimore County. Our home was one of the hundreds of townhomes a large company had recently and cheaply built, lacking any measure of what people generally call “character.”
That particular July 4th, I was determined to take my family to a parade somewhere charming and old-fashioned.
The cold modern utility of our townhouse made me miss the architecture of venerable old buildings of the Saint Marys, Kansas “Indian Mission” that the cult called its “campus”. Though these also seemed built mostly with utility in mind, even their plain brick exterior walls seemed special. Inside, hardwood floors, steam radiators, majestic ceilings, and crown moldings were visually awe-inspiring, as the aged fragrances of the antique materials mixed in the ambient air to make each building smell like a unique work of art.
When I left those buildings forever, I threw out my entire belief system to start over and build an identity that made sense from the ground up. One of the few things I kept was my love of antiques and historic architecture, hoping that someday I’d have the money to indulge it fully.
Just a few years into my tech career and caring for my three small children though, I had a long way to go before I could even dream of buying any house, let alone some coveted historic property. For now, I’d take my family to experience the old-fashioned charm of Kingsville, just 15 minutes north of our meaningless modern dwelling.
I knew Kingsville because I’d taken my kids a few times to Jerusalem Mill, a historic site in the area featuring several buildings that used to make up a community. You can enter the historic mill and view its inner workings. Re-enactors often dress in costumes to illustrate life before the modern conveniences we enjoy today. In the blacksmith shop, a real blacksmith in colonial garb uses old-fashioned techniques to make iron pots, pans, and other household tools.
Inside those buildings at Jerusalem Mill, I could smell the beloved smells of old architecture radiating from ancient materials and blending to create that familiar olfactory art. The surrounding historic homes were big and stately, or cozy and charming, just like ones I’d dreamed of owning near the cult’s Indian Mission in Kansas. Leading up to the Fourth of July, many homeowners would drape fences, railings, and windows of homes both grand and humble with old-fashioned American flag buntings.
That July 4th, we picked a spot on the side of the road in Kingsville to watch the parade.
As the procession began to stream past the spot where my family and I stood, my hopes of a refined old-fashioned experience gave way to utter dismay.
Almost every float, truck, and marching group represented a conservative political candidate or hate organization.
Christianity as political control. Anti-abortion marchers. Confederate flags.
I had to catch my breath.
I instinctively shrank away from people carrying signs boasting about gun ownership, egging the crowd on as they cheered and whooped for unlimited gun rights.
In charming Kingsville, this was what America was about. This was what July 4th was about.
My god. I’d brought my small children here.
I suffered through the parade with the strangling hands of guilt and embarrassment around my throat. I hoped my husband wouldn’t interpret this spectacle as I did and know how naive I’d been.
I’m telling you about a July 4th years before Donald Trump became a political figure. In July 2023, as I drive through Kingsville, the Trump 2024 signs that appear amongst the colonial flag buntings don’t surprise me.
I now project today’s more openly White Supremacist conservative branding back in time onto my experience of the Kingsville parade all those years ago. Then, I could not have given a well-worded reason for my reaction. I had a lot of learning to do before realizing I’d gotten smacked upside the head by the very real through lines from White colonial nostalgia to the racism and gun violence of today’s White nationalism.
I’ve since realized that when people say that a house or historic main street (such as Ellicott City, another historic spot near me) is “charming,” the subtext is that this place can give you the experience of a bygone era of White exclusionary excellence.
White people have nostalgia for a time we can’t remember. The Colonial era began and ended long before any of us were born, yet we revel in memories of Colonial times as if they were our own. We inherit these memories via our Whiteness and expect to claim them untainted by any hint of Blackness.
That’s what “charming” towns offer us. That’s what I was looking for when I took my family to the July 4th parade in Kingsville.
My artistic work has taken me to historical markers all over the US, the majority of them celebrating incidences of violence: skirmishes, battles, arson, and places where soldiers camped on their way to more battles. The rest mark land White people colonized, making sure we know what they named the farms, industrial operations, and mansions they built and when they built them. They omit the violence against Indigenous people by which White colonizers seized that land, and their violence against Black people they enslaved to develop it for profit.
Through the unique lens I gained from my White Supremacist training in the cult and subsequent CRT-informed studies, this is what America celebrates, whether consciously or simply out of long-standing habit: the history of colonizer violence and exploitation that lives on as today’s systemic White Supremacy.
When we hear of a mass shooting, deadly racist incident, or the Supreme Court hands down a racist ruling, we say things like, “This is not who we are.”
But this is precisely who we are. July Fourth is a celebration of American identity, and White Supremacy has coded racism and violence into that identity and everything we do to celebrate it from the very beginning. Fireworks evoke gunfire and bombs exploding. Even the notion of a parade is tied to demonstrations of military power.
The halcyon days of White colonialism we’re so nostalgic for only exist when we omit Black and Indigenous stories. They only exist when we turn violence into an abstraction. After I saw the parade in Kingsville, I could no longer see racism as a small incidental in an otherwise magnificent story, and violence was no longer an abstraction. There was no more White colonial-era nostalgia for me. I saw the costumed White re-enactors at Jerusalem Mill in a different light.
I haven’t celebrated July 4th in years. What would I be celebrating?
After diving deep and being honest with ourselves, maybe we’ll conclude there’s still something to celebrate on July 4th. But, just as I did after leaving the cult I grew up in, new generations of Americans will have to tear down old belief systems to become more truthful and intentional about what to base our national identity on.