Born on the Fourth of July

Buffalo Soldiers, from the photo collection of my Great Great Uncle and Aunt John and Josephine Myricks. My Uncle John was a Buffalo Soldier.

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.

11 thoughts on “Born on the Fourth of July

  1. Snob,I understand your feelings about patriotism. Those feelings become especially apparent on The Fourth of July. Today as on every 4th I feel nothing. I’m not interested in fireworks or going to anyone’s 4th cookout or the stupid Essence music festival.All I really ever think about regarding the 4th of July is that if I was transported back to July 4, 1776, I and the other Black people would have nothing what-so-ever to celebrate.And I really hate it when people, especially Black people, wish me a happy Fourth.

  2. We, black folks, operate in cognitive dissonance on this idea of the Fourth. I reconcile it by looking at it as an opportunity when the whole family is off from work and FINALLY we all get together.I had a painful conversation with my father about a year or two ago where he was laying into our government and all the ills of this country, and he was calling on the wrath of God on this country. Me and my mother were like, I hope it happens when we’re gone. My father said it needs to happen now–I ultimately gave him the love it or leave it speech, of which he got mad and stopped talking and going on about how me and my mother always shut him down.When I did my post, I couldn’t bring myself to do an apologist approach to Independence Day. For me patriotism is being able to dissent against the government, and yes, thank God I live in a country where for all intents and purposes I don’t fear for my life or my families life on the basis of what I think, feel or say. But, for me these freedoms pale in comparison to the freedoms that we still don’t have and the lethally deliberate speed that our country is moving in an attempt to correct these ills.I don’t want to confuse patriotism with jingoism–the blatant and unintelligent nationalism that it seems much of white America and MSM portray as patriotism. For me it’s a VERY thin line. I’d rather err, of course, on the side of patriotism. But I’ll be the first black person, even at my age, if I could leave it all I would.Seriously, if somewhere down the line, an opportunity arose for me to move somewhere like Australia or Brazil or the Caribbean, I’d do it, no questions asked.I may like some things about this country, but I sure as hell don’t love it.

  3. SnobI don’t really believe that white America wants us to, or believes that we are or can be patriotic.And like many, I don’t feel a stirring on the 4th of July.However, I was very angry for what terrorists did to this country on 911.It hurts to feel good about a country that treats it citizens the way that we’ve been treated.

  4. That was a really profound post. I’m Canadian, and so I do not have the experience of living in a country where there was slavery, but most Canadians are Europeans from the same places the slave owners were from. But I feel this way now about so many of the things I used to love and the things I do now. I feel weird about the soft rock music I used to like, the movies and tv shows I watched, the scientific field I’m in, the clothes I wear, the books I read as a child etc. How can I love these things that were created by people who did so many horrible things to my people? I don’t feel patriotic about Canada either because Canada is a former British colony and the British had slaves, so they are the same people. I’m a first generation Canadian too so we don’t have a history here. I don’t want to be invaded or get kicked out, but I’m not all fanatical about being Canadian. I just can’t be fanatically proud of a country where I didn’t learn anything about Africa or Black Canadians in school or where there is still racism against Black people. I feel like, I live here, I really like some things, but there is nothing emotional or spiritual about my being here. I don’t get how any Black person can be as patriotic about living in a Western country as a European would be. I think a lot of people realize that so thats why they are giving Obama a hard time about patriotism. I’ll always remember the Chris Rock joke that goes something like, “America is like an uncle who put you through college. Unfortunately, he molested you the whole time”. There are great things about the country, and great opportunities, but there was so much evil done in the process that still continues.

  5. BS (yeah I know),I truly appreciate the effort and thoughtfulness that you devote to blogging, especially in this post. The cognitive dissonance referred to by the Uppity Negro aptly expresses how distressing it is to be a conscious black person in the USA especially on the 4th of July. It is not a new feeling and its been explored way before Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man,’ James Weldon Johnson’s ‘Lift Evr’y Voice And Sing,’ and Frederick Douglass’ July 4, 1852 speech on the subject of subject of celebration of an event that so exclusively discounted black people period.When Barack Obama’s former pastor, Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. spoke ‘truth to power’ only those who are barely award even thought to consider what he said rather than how he said it–including black people. In order for many of us to simply enjoy being American, many times it means simply visiting the Isle of Denial way too often. The real danger in this is we can’t live there.We caught a Buffalo Soldier travelling exhibit in Oklahoma about ten years ago. It was overwhelmingly emotional–to actually see artifacts from this group of Negro soldiers carrying out orders to actively participate in the further genocide of Native Americans was a lot to comprehend–when the implication that the Native Americans could only see the Negro soldiers as ‘black white men.’ The exhibit was unbelievably heartbreaking in its historical record of the evil cruelty to nonwhite human beings by ‘patriotic Americans.’Honor your family’s Buffalo Soldier on the 4th and uppity Negroes can find some solace in that while as a country, we are not ‘post-racial’ and that we must understand that have a long way to go and a short time to get there.It is liberating to know that this 4th of July demonstrates that many of us can discuss our disconnect and hope for the change that Marvin Gaye sang about is gonna come. Voting can address patriotic apathy. Unfortunately, Shelby Steel is an unsympathetically foolish man. Thanks again, BS, for the great post.

  6. Well I guess it’s unanimous Blacks don’t feel any sense of country on the 4th Of July. LOLI can’t like I watched the marathon on To Catch a Predator on MSNBC. I am still in shock of how many people actually keep walking in the house. GUARD YOUR DAUGHTERS!The 4th used to be just a day to blow half sticks of dynamite. Until CA outlawed them. Besides that it’s just a holiday to boost the economy and pick up a new stove.Get on down there they still have them through the weekend!

  7. Snob,I have had mixed feelings about the 4th for decades.I was born in 50’s. So I grew up with the movements being my devloping American experiences. I have had to learn how to make myself peaceful in the land of my birth.Our duality as a people has been a matter of fact for decades. I am from the generation of children who I have deemed to be the firsts. In many cases we the first to finish basic educations, attend colleges, to intergrate the workplace and to do those things which our elders had been unable to accomplish.I have never been able to totally accept or totally reject American Me. This is the culture that I grew up in and raised my own family in. When I stop and consider where else in the world I could be and what might be happening to me~this does not seem like such a bad place. This is a thought provoking post and I appreciate the points you raised.

  8. Bronze Trinity, I am a Jamaican who grew up in Canada and now ive in the United States, and you have described my feelings regarding patriotism exactly. I could not have said it better myself. Thank you.

  9. I’m not a fan of the 4th. As far as I’m concerned it’s just another day. There’s such a lack of a collective understanding and empathy about who is/is not American–and then you get into the silly whys and why nots. It’s all too stupid, short-sighted and superficial, and it makes me really angry. There’s a bigger picture we all need to get, and things like the 4th of July are just distractions.My grandfather fought in WWII, and when he died, no one showed up at his funeral to give him a proper salute and burial. My uncle, a chaplain in the army at the time, did the honors.I get dreamy when I read and re-read de Tocqueville, but then reality has a way of smacking me out of my dreamy stupor.

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