by Melina Drake Young
As a kid I was vehemently unpatriotic. A weird stance for a kid to take. I was indifferent to fireworks and staunchly against country music, which is all I understood patriotism to be. That changed when I was in high school.
I take after Heidi Shreck. I was not only a theatre nerd in high school, but also a nerd nerd.
Like Shreck, I too developed a (somewhat obnoxious) penchant for the study of United States history and government. (I owe that in no small part to Mr. Roberts and Mr. Edwards of Immaculate Heart High School who shaped and encouraged the civically minded and curious woman that I am today. Behind every know-it-all is a gifted and endlessly patient teacher—or in my case a few.)
But I digress.
Some of us have had the good fortune to learn what the Constitution means to Heidi Shreck whose play, What the Constitution Means to Me, is based on her successful career competing against other high schoolers in Constitutional debates for scholarship money. As a woman in America, I know that this nation’s laws don’t often work in my favor. Heidi Shreck reminds Broadway audiences that preventing violence against women and protecting our equal rights are barely—and insufficiently—touched on in United States law. What’s more, that failure of justice is much more lethal for women of color and trans women than it is for white, cis women like Shreck and me. Concepts like patriotism and an American love of freedom are hard to stomach when one considers the prejudice that festers within our borders: from a prison system that has modernized slavery to tender age shelters and the vilification of undocumented entry into this country. Freedom stands in sharp contrast to the systemic criminalization of black and brown existence in the United States.
Patriotism is not the marginalization of and lack of legal protections available to non-white, non-cis, non-straight, non-male lives in the United States. These facts are equal parts shameful and frightening. That’s a taste of what the Constitution means to Shreck.
Another similarity between Shreck and me is that my appreciation of the Constitution extends beyond its legal bounds.
The Constitution means being sixteen and falling in love with United States history and government instead of a boy. It means being serenaded by the Bill of Rights and beguiled by the separation of powers. It means knowing my rights and understanding them. It means civic literacy.
It means being seventeen and dressing up on the Fourth of July in overalls, an American-flag bikini and matching headband, with a copy of the Constitution in my back pocket. It means reading Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in my Nona’s backyard under the sweltering July sun.
It means being eighteen and weeping after the legalization of gay marriage and acknowledging for the first time in my life that I was proud to be an American.
It means being nineteen and getting to finally participate in the triumph of Democracy that is a fair and free election. It means voting for a candidate that resembled me more closely than a major party, presidential candidate ever had. And it means watching her lose. That defeat showed me that this country was more hateful than I had believed it to be.
But I refuse to become jaded.
To me, the Constitution means being twenty-two and sitting in the front row of the Fountain Theatre as my grandmother reads from the stage at the Fountain’s Mueller Report Read-A-Thon as an act of patriotic resistance. I watch my Nona, a native of Egypt—one of those countries that her President has shamefully referred to as a “shithole”—marry her love of theatre with her love of a country that has been hers for 70 years come August 10th. As I look toward the 70th anniversary of my grandmother’s escape from the violence of her native land, I acknowledge that this country—her refuge—resembles the land from which she fled more closely with each passing day. And I am saddened. My Nona, however, gives me hope. She is a tri-lingual refugee who raised two kids and maintained an impressive theatrical and literary career (in her third language) 7,470 miles away from the land that raised and then betrayed her. She is undoubtedly a great American.
So I guess, I was wrong.
Despite my childish convictions and everything else, I am an American Patriot. Just like my Nona.
Melina Young is the summer intern at the Fountain Theatre. We thank the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture for the support of its Arts Internship Program.