Few things are more annoying or more confusing than my understanding of patriotism and how others — mostly White — perceive my patriotism and the patriotism of people of color more broadly. It’s something that I’ve struggled to grasp for more than thirty years. For those of you whose patriotism is akin to breathing, that’s your prerogative. I’ve found that something like one’s love for their country, like one’s belief in God (or not), shouldn’t be one that comes without thought or without any doubts at all. For without giving it any serious or critical thought or without any questioning or lingering doubts, most American patriotism is like being a Yankees or a Lakers fan. Patriotism in that sense is simply rooting for a team that can do no wrong, one that is expected to win in any contest simply because that’s all they’ve ever done.
My sense of patriotism began in ’79, when I started to devour history books and volumes of World Book Encyclopedia. I wasn’t completely naive, because I had also read Lerone Bennett’s/Ebony’s three-volume Black America set while learning about World War II. But I did believe that America ultimately stood for goodness and prosperity, for freedom and democracy all over the world. I fervently saluted the flag at pledge of allegiance time in school in fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh grade.
At one point between fourth and sixth grade, I even created a pretend nation-state in our bedroom at 616, where I played out domestic and foreign policy issues through make-believe characters, from, of all things, the Peanuts comic strip. I saw the Cold War with the Soviet Union as one we absolutely had to win in order to keep the totalitarian communists at bay. Several of my Humanities classmates can attest to my defense of American foreign policy as late as ninth grade.
But even as I generally saw the US as the country the Scholastic Weekly Reader described it to be, I had my doubts as to America the always right and beautiful. It started at the end of fifth grade, when I hit the chapter in our social studies book about how we ended World War II with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I hadn’t seen the mushroom cloud or the fire-bleached skulls before then. It scared me, but more importantly, it made me think about how cruel it was to wipe out a city the size of Mount Vernon but with three times as many people in the same space.
Then, with the Reagan Years and the almost complete refusal to acknowledge racism and poverty in the ’80s got me to the point where I refused to recite the pledge by my junior year of high school. One of the reasons I never saw the military as an option for escaping the abuse and poverty I’d grown up with was because I saw American foreign policy as one that was at least as imperialistic as that of the Soviets. Iran-Contra, Vietnam, El Salvador and Grenada were examples of us over-stepping our role as the leader of the free world.
It got worse for me before it got better. The Gulf War (’90-’91) and my growing knowledge of American history and atrocities at home and abroad made me feel as if this country was never meant for me, never meant to be mine.
Luckily I had other people from which to draw inspiration about how to approach a nation that generally takes people like me for granted, as if my life and death doesn’t matter at all. People as varied as Derrick Bell, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, W.E.B. Du Bois, Anna Julia Cooper, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ralph Ellison — not to mention my Army ROTC friends who served — served to inspire another sense of patriotism.
Their writings and speeches, their acts on behalf of civil rights, human rights and social justice did teach me two things. One, that even folks who serve in the military deserve credit for understanding that their projection of American power means little without clear objectives and a clear sense that this use of power is necessary, justifiable and can actually matter to and gain the support of the rest of the world. Two, that holding my country’s feet to the fire around racism, poverty, imperialism and other forms of injustice is a form of patriotism. Without the socially conscious, this country’s ideals, its flag and other symbols of power, are meaningless beyond the imperial. So, for better and for worse, happy birthday America.