My family is not particularly patriotic.
We’re not particularly religious either. If we had a faith it would be pragmatism, ethics and morals. In the absence of God we were still about kindness, honor and respect. Reverence for those deserving of it. Love for those even if they didn’t love us. That’s what my mother taught me.
For a long time I wasn’t patriotic. This in spite of the fact that I loved what America stood for and believed in its founding principles of egalitarianism — even though when those principles were set in stone the only people who could vote were white male landowners and millions of people were enslaved, doomed to a hard and brutal life.
It’s understandable that black people would develop a twoness about America, the only home we’ve ever known that we loved even when it did not love us. The country our men begged to fight and die over to prove they were equal to any man. The country where black women fought for equality and against lynching and supported their fathers, sons and brothers. But getting excited over the Fourth of July is hard for some. It was hard for me.
Despite the public school system’s best efforts to endocrine me with American pride, nothing really stuck. I liked some things, like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” my favorite patriotic song to sing and the Tall Tales of the American west of Paul Bunyan, Davy Crockett and John Henry. I loved the belief that America welcomed all people of all kinds to get a fresh start and pursue their dreams. I loved all the fairy tale aspects, the real and the fact, the bright idealism and the fantasy. But I still felt weird holding a flag. There was still a hollowness in my heart when I said the Pledge of Allegiance. Something was missing. The body was willing but the spirit wasn’t there.
My Great Great Uncle John was a Buffalo Soldier. Sometimes I think of him, so proud to be in the Army, believing the Army was the answer for any young man. I think of him giving his heart, sweat and blood for his country at a time when he was an afterthought. At a time when there was an actual debate as to whether black soldiers could fight in World War I and II. To do this, to serve his country and do his job in the face of that rejection is amazing to me.
As down as I get sometimes over our country I still believe that someday the egalitarian principles it was founded on will come true. I want to believe that we are working towards a more perfect union, not a police state or a theocracy as some fear. I want to believe in the good.
Jack and Jill Politics recently published this quote from conservative author Shelby Steele.
“White Americans have made more moral progress in the last forty years than any people in the history of the human conditions.”
I don’t know if I’m ready to make nice like Shelby. I don’t know if I’m ready to make bygones bygones for my uncle who was never truly honored for his service, who died before the Buffalo Soldiers finally got their due during the Clinton Administration. America has made progress. Things are better. Opportunities have opened up and many are acting upon them. But this is not paradise. We are not holding hands and singing in harmony. There is still distrust and suspicion and prejudice and hate.
Because of integration there are more and more white people my age and younger who have black friends and love black culture. There are more black people better socialized into the mainstream. But integration lead to the inadvertent destruction in the inner cities, the crippling of city schools and a new form of segregation based on property values and wealth.
These are not the things of a “more perfect union.”
Americans, black and white, have a vast capacity to do good. I believe as Rep. Charles Rangel has said that if called upon I would defend my country. And it’s weird that I believe that in spite it all. That I’m proud to be part of this country despite it all. Even if I feel weird holding a flag. Even if I feel the Pledge of Allegiance is superficial. As I move my lips and go through the motions of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” part of me is wanting, yearning for something greater than myself.
I once got into a strange argument with another black person over the War on Terror. It was about collective punishment. The person I was arguing with stated that al-Qeada had no intention of killing black people. I pointed out that black people died on Sept. 11, 2001. I tried to explain that Osama bin Laden and his ilk did not differentiate between the races because this was about collective punishment. He saw all Americans as being culpable and fair game because they elected the government that meddled in Middle East affairs. While some, like Libyan leader Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi were fascinated by black Americans and identified with our struggle, some could care less. If we got killed in the crossfire, so be it. There has been no breaks for black soldiers and Marines in Iraq.
I found myself arguing for solidarity against a common enemy. Even if we understood why they were angry and sympathized, we could not just lie around and allow ourselves to be victimized. That fighting back was rational. The fatal flaw was that our government handled the threat in an irrational manner that sometimes made us look as cold and cruel as the enemy. I did not want to see America lose its moral high ground, but now all our calls for peace in Sudan and Zimbabwe ring hollow.
Who are we kidding?
In some ways we have become the monster we’d sworn to fight against.
A lot of black people dissociate themselves form all this, but they shouldn’t. Throwing up your hands and putting all this drama on “the white folks in charge” isn’t an excuse. Whether you love America or hate America you still live here. It is still part of your culture and identity and when our country does something immoral we are all tainted by it. This war is not just Bush’s fault or Rumsfeld’s fault or Cheney’s fault. It is the Congress’ fault. It is the Supreme Court’s fault. The media. The CIA. The FBI and it is OUR fault because we elected the people who governed us. I didn’t vote for Bush but he’s the HNIC and we are his public. When we go abroad we are all judged by our countries actions. There is no differentiation. We are all in this together.
That’s what patriotism is. When you realize that this lives inside you. It is there. And try to disassociate as you might, it won’t leave you. You won’t stop wanting things to be better, for our country to be better. And you will be held accountable, whether you want to be or not, for what happens here. Helplessness or cries of inability and lack of power will fall on deaf ears. The most patriotic thing I do is vote. It’s my way of taki
ng responsibility of what my country does and how I want it to treat me. I stay informed about politics and issues because I want to make the right decisions. I want to make things better. I want to believe.
People can have their flag pins and barbecues. I will keep my eye on the future.