A large white fireworks explosion in a black sky.
Photo: Andrew Zuckerman

The Fraught, Noisy History of Fireworks in America

By Aileen Kwun
July 4, 2020
2 minute read

The 4th of July has at times been a fraught holiday for Americans, and the cause for celebration feels especially dubious this year, as protests for social justice continue amid a pandemic that’s spiking across the country (and hitting communities of color, including Native Americans, disproportionately hard). In recent weeks, the nostalgia of fireworks—a visual and auditory spectacle innovated by Chinese alchemists as early as 600 A.D., and used to celebrate Independence Day in the U.S. since 1777—have come under fire themselves. In major cities across the country, the blaring sounds of illicit fireworks going off late into the night have filled the streets for the past several weeks, at a rate unprecedented in recent years. In New York City, the number of complaints filed by residents in response to the constant booming, hissing, crackling, and popping of Macy’s-grade pyrotechnics increased nearly a hundredfold in the last month—and have given rise to more than a handful of conspiracy theories on social media. They’ve also sparked debates about race, gentrification, class, and the privilege of calling the police for “quality of life” complaints at all, at a time when police brutality and unlawful misconduct is being protested in the streets. News outlets, meanwhile, warn that “fireworks and hand sanitizer could make for a dangerous combination,” making the dazzling explosives, at least for this year, a peculiar, precarious assault on the senses, in more ways than one.