THE BLOG

The African American Patriotism Quandary

On the topic of patriotism, Barack Obama wrote the following for Time magazine:

"When I was a child, I lived overseas for a time with my mother. And one of my earliest memories is of her reading to me the first lines of the Declaration of Independence, explaining how its ideas applied to every American, black and white and brown alike. She taught me that those words, and the words of the United States Constitution, protected us from the brutal injustices we witnessed other people suffer during those years abroad."

I can't imagine what it's like to be physically identifiable as black, and have a white parent--particularly a mother; both of mine were black. I was old enough to watch the height of the civil rights movement and my ambitious, striving parents were furious enough to ensure that the eyes through which I saw it were filled not with today's nostalgic pride at America's eventual move forward, but with the Movement's rage that we had to suffer death, beatings, jets from water hoses and white men and women's spittle to gain our rights as human beings.

Like Obama's mother, they could have read the Declaration of Independence to me. But it would have been with a rage and sadness that the ideas, in application, did not apply equally to those like us.

Michelle Obama is attacked for saying she was proud of her country for the first time in her adult life. Some white conservatives expressed outrage that anyone could harbor such a sentiment. Some such critics are probably ignorant of history. Some desperately seek to "disinvent" a history that is counter to their preferred American narrative. All of them, in the immortal words of Jack Nicholson, "can't handle the truth." They can't handle the truth of America's past. They can't handle the truth of that past's continued existence in the African-American present.

My father was a career Army officer. In the 50s, black officers battled suspicions of communist sympathies. It was quite a dance: Whites treated them as second-class, and then dared them to seek an alternate path so that they could attack them for not loving the country that treated them with contempt.

There's an updated dance for black politicians. They have to go the extra mile to prove that they "love" America. Conservative Republicanism is the surest route. If you tolerate a party that owes its modern political good fortune to racial fear and hatred, then you must love America. If you're willing to eat that much shit, you're one of the "safe" ones, one of the "good" ones.

Since I'm not a politician, I don't have to pretend. I am not one of the "good" ones. I cannot say that I "love" America. I do not know what that means. Raised as I was, when I was, and by the parents I inherited, America has always been an abstraction to me. It certainly was not the "land of the free." It was not the cradle of freedom and liberty. It claimed to cherish those ideals, but it denied them to me. America has always been where I live. It is what I know. I admire a great deal about it. As my home, I would defend it.

But I don't consider America's grandest actions to have been taken on my behalf, in my generational stead, or in my name. And so I do not take personal pride in them. Love? I love those things that I trust well. I love those things that I know in my heart love me in return, and that I know in my heart would never knowingly harm me. I can attest to none of that about America.

As black, the bulk of America's history is, to be blunt, a hundreds-year insult to me. While black Americans have successfully battered our way into America's mainstream, I principally credit black Americans with that accomplishment, not "America." If America wants thanks for "allowing" us our rights, look elsewhere. Only the personality disordered narcissist insists on congratulations for not doing evil.

Imagine you were born where you and your parents did not have the rights of most, in which you witnessed the majority laugh at coon-faced parodies of people like you, in which your young self knew that the majority of your countrymen did not consider you quite as human as they were, and felt justified in treating you accordingly. It leaves a scar. It's a scar many Americans don't want to see, so they attack those like Michelle Obama who draw attention to it. They call it "grievance." In fact, it's just history--yours and mine. There are other scars in America's history, but few that are treated with such revulsion.

Time magazine asked MIT neurobiology professor Matt Wilson, "Why do we remember unpleasant events better than ordinary ones?"

He replied, "We think of memory as a record of our experience. But the idea is not just to store information; it's to store relevant information. [The idea is] to use our experience to guide future behavior."

And there's the rub. America is asking black politicians to prove that they will not use African-America's brutal and humiliating historical experience to guide their behavior.

I guess they just want to make sure that black politicians don't treat America the way America treated blacks. Ironic, isn't it? So many Americans insist that blacks forget our history in America, but it obviously remains at the top of their minds.