Teaching Citizenship on July 4th

Since January, I have been volunteering as a citizenship instructor, teaching weekly classes (over Zoom for the duration of the pandemic) to immigrants here in Los Angeles who have applied to become naturalized U.S. citizens. My co-instructor and I focus on preparing our students for their interviews with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, as well as the civics/history and English language exams. Today, on the Fourth of July, we will be teaching an optional one-hour class on the Declaration of Independence. We hope at least a few students will choose to observe the holiday by attending!

As I prepared for class yesterday, I found myself fondly remembering my 8th grade U.S. history curriculum. Namely: sitting at the kitchen table with my mom, taking turns reading aloud from Joy Hakim’s remarkable “A History of US” series. Hakim’s writing is lively, inquisitive, and intelligent—so much so, that many an older reader would no doubt find her books an illuminating commentary on American history. My mom certainly did. We would become so engaged in Hakim’s narration of events and evocation of characters (both well-known and obscure) that other items on the day’s agenda—math, Japanese, piano—would be postponed for hours on end. We laughed and we cried; tears splashed the pages recounting the Trail of Tears. I attribute my continued passion for history—the fact that I plan to spend my career as an academic historian—in large part to these hours at the kitchen table with my mom and Joy Hakim.

So, when planning today’s lesson on the Declaration of Independence, I decided to share Joy Hakim with my students. You can take a look at my PowerPoint here; all quoted text is Hakim’s (“From Colonies to Country,” Chapters 16 and 20). Make sure to watch the video on the final slide (also embedded below): NPR’s “‘What To The Slave Is The Fourth Of July?’: Descendants Read Frederick Douglass’ Speech.” We must acknowledge that the independence/freedom declared on July 4, 1776, while certainly worth celebrating, was for too long limited to white Americans. This video is a poignant commentary on how historical injustice—but also the hope for a better future that has sustained generations of activists—continues to resonate today.

I look forward to the day my students become citizens of the United States. I have full confidence that by voting or protesting or maybe even running for office(!), they will be engaged in the ongoing work of making our country one where every individual truly does enjoy the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And that is something worth celebrating today and every day.

You can order Joy Hakim’s “A History of US” (the entire series or individual books) from Barnes and Noble.