I, too, sing [black] America.
Upon learning the painful truths of American history and how my ancestor’s oppression laid the foundation for this nation’s might, I chose to reject all forms of patriotism. I stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance at school. I publicly critiqued how America’s power systems still terrorize people at home and abroad to this very day. Independence Day became just another day--at best an excuse to do line dances and eat some barbecue. Overall, I heavily identified with Frederick Douglass’s line of thinking in his famous speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July” where he very plainly states, “Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us… The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn” (7).
So that’s what I did for a long time. I actively and subconsciously mourned my lineage, experiences, and identity as a black woman. I mourned the Black American experience because of all the wicked injustices that came along with it. While it’s important not to sugar-coat (i.e. whitewash) the truths of America’s past and present, I didn’t realize how dangerous and incomplete this solely pessimistic perspective can be. It didn’t help that I was rising to this level of consciousness in a time period where racial tension in the United States was at an all-time high for the 21st century. There was constant discourse around brutality and “woke-ness” and privilege and revolution online, in media and everyday life. Sadness accented by rage informed my position. It got to the point that I dedicated a lot of my time and energy to mourning the evils done to people who look like me. While the complicated story of black people in America runs deep, my constant performance of trauma for the sake of “woke-ness” became shallow and draining very quickly.
A shift in thinking came when I moved to New York City and began to encounter people from all over the world--particularly non-American black people. I was born and raised on Chicago's South Side, and most of the black people from my corner of the Midwest were "just black" like me. Our grandparents or great-grandparents had moved to the city via the Great Migration, and we traced our roots back to places like Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama. Befriending Black Caribbean and African immigrants convicted me to celebrate the complicated intersection of being a black person whose family has been in America since chattel slavery. Seeing black people from other countries who had faced similar atrocities still find joy in where they came from both confused and inspired me. Jamaicans threw their flag up at every party. Afro-Dominicans would say, “I’m Dominican,” before even considering the word “black.” And even though their country was carved up by a bunch of white men at the Berlin Conference, Nigerians would beam when speaking about their national heritage. All of these people were realistic about the injustices that color their nations’ past and present. However, despite being colonized, subjugated, enslaved, and still mistreated to this day, they’ve found the joy in their histories. Who else will celebrate our resilience and cultural contributions if we don't?
While I admired their love for their roots, I quickly learned a lot of them didn't have the same respect for mine. Some of my Caribbean and African friends would ignorantly say that Black Americans don’t have a culture. I then learned to defend just how rich Black American culture is. All of a sudden, I found myself defending, promoting, loving the national identity I used to mourn. The resilience of the Black American experience birthed innovations, artistry, schools of thought, movements, and freedoms that changed not only this country but the world forever. Black American writer and social activist, Langston Hughes, puts it like this in his famous poem:
“I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.” (ll. 1-7)
From 1619 to 2019, one can see the mistreatment of “the darker brother” at every point in American history. Oppressive patterns of white supremacist
violence, disenfranchisement, and erasure have been woven into the very fabric of this country. Miraculously, one can see the darker brother laughing, eating, and growing strong despite his mistreatment throughout this country's history. Where would America be without black people’s ability to turn pain into passion, to turn scraps into soul food, to make a way out of no way? In her essay for the New York Times, Nikole Hannah-Jones notes,
“When the world listens to quintessential American music, it is our voice they hear. The sorrow songs we sang in the fields to soothe our physical pain and find hope in a freedom we did not expect to know until we died became American gospel. Amid the devastating violence and poverty of the Mississippi Delta, we birthed jazz and blues. And it was in the deeply impoverished and segregated neighborhoods where white Americans forced the descendants of the enslaved to live that teenagers too poor to buy instruments used old records to create a new music known as hip-hop.” (17)
It’s almost as if the adversity black people face has not only encouraged resistance but also brought forth a steadfast spirit of creative genius. It’s almost as if the outspoken, freedom-fighting “pursuit of happiness” that laid the groundwork for America’s value system runs through the veins of Black Americans as well. Nikole Hannah-Jones puts it best, “We were told once, by virtue of our bondage that we could never be America. But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all” (19).
Merriam-Webster defines “patriot” as, “One who loves or supports his or her country.” The allegiance many black people have towards the United States of America might not make sense to a lot of people. It used to not make sense to me. However, I now see that the dignity we have towards this land is bigger than the flag, national songs, or wars we fought in. It’s the satisfaction of remembering the very strong shoulders I’m standing on. My soul delights every time I remember that my ancestors not only survived one of the worst atrocities of human history but thrived to the point of improving the quality of life for future generations. They thrived to the point of innovation, revolution, and creativity. Some even thrived to the point of living to tell their side of the story. Black American Patriotism looks like Crispus Attucks becoming the first casualty of the American Revolution. It prompted Harriet Tubman to become a spy for the Union Army. It pushed Colin Kaepernick to kneel for the National Anthem to bring awareness to police brutality. It moved Stacy Abrams to challenge voter suppression and ask for a recount.
So, I’m not a flag-waving patriot in the traditional sense, but I definitely want to be a patriot in the same calculated, sacrificial, and deeply impactful way Black Americans have been ever since stepping foot on this land.
Douglass, F. (1852). What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July [PDF file]. Retrieved from https://liberalarts.utexas.edu/coretexts/_files/resources/texts/c/1852%20Douglass%20July%204.pdf
Hannah-Jones, N. (2019, August 19). America Wasn't a Democracy, Until Black Americans Made It One. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/black-history-american-democracy.html
Hughes, L. (1926). I, Too, Sing America [PDF file]. Retrieved from http://chnm.gmu.edu/loudountah/resources_files/abk/hughes_sing-america.pdf