The Paradox of Black Patriotism in America
From the Derek Chauvin trial to the killing of Daunte Wright, it is a hard time to be an African American patriot.
My father used to read an entire Perry Mason book every day; Perry Mason is a fictional American criminal defense attorney authored by Erle Stanley Gardner. The series was a chance for my father to escape his reality as a child living in poverty in a rural region in Nigeria. He eventually gained an American green card and worked at a Stop & Go gas station for upward of two years while studying at Los Angeles Community College and sending money back to Nigeria to pay for my mother’s college tuition. When my mother arrived, he transferred to UCLA to pursue his bachelor’s degree with the eventual goal of attending law school — which he completed at Massachusetts School of Law. My mother eventually became a registered nurse. Both of my parents loved the idea of America — the belief that anyone, regardless of class or race or religion, can attain their own version of success in a society in which upward movement is possible for everyone.
My father is a patriot. My mother is a patriot. When watching the Olympics or the FIFA World Cup, they are audibly dismayed at the simple possibility that the U.S. may not place first or advance to another round. They both have been naturalized citizens for going on two decades. They have achieved the American dream.
I am a patriot. I love being a citizen of the greatest nation on Earth. I get a lump in my throat every time I hear the national anthem, whether it is at a football game or on a televised event. When I was in high school, I recited the “Pledge of Allegiance” every morning with pride.
Patriotism for Black Americans is paradoxical — it feels foolish to love a nation that despises you in return. Being patriotic would not spare my father from American racism; even in his early forties, after obtaining his doctorate in theology and deciding to earn a law degree, my father experienced blatant racism and taunting by his very own law professor. He acted oblivious so as to not act “inappropriately” by responding in the way he wanted, afraid that he would be blackballed at the university. The taunting and racist remarks were so much so that his White fellow classmates openly called out the professor and even complained to higher-ups, calling for his termination. Nothing of the sort resulted as a consequence of the professor’s tenure at the university. My father was not surprised but disappointed; when he told my family of the occurrence, I was so naively shocked that I could not sleep well for two days. I was shocked by the blatant racism. I was shocked at my father’s strength to attend the professor’s class and accept his racist remarks as the singular Black student in his class. I was shocked at the realization that my parents were wrong in the philosophy they taught my siblings and I — no matter how well-read, how wealthy, how successful we were on paper, in America we are Black first, citizen second.
Our Americanness has not spared my brothers and I from racist encounters either.
My youngest brother is currently a high school senior. My family’s house is situated in one of the upper-middle-class counties in the state. My brother is still living at home with my parents. One summer day, as he is walking up the street to a gas station to buy a slurpy, a car with four passengers in it slowly drives beside him in the right lane. My brother, startled, pulls his AirPods out of his ears to ask if anything was needed. The young male in the driver’s seat, winds down his window, yells the n-word, and, while snickering with his comrades, speeds off down the road. My brother is in a state of shock and decides to turn around and head home. He calls me later to tell me about the event; as I start worrying, he tries to downplay his initial anger, calling them “redneck losers.” But I know my brother and know when he is not being truthful. He was upset, and so was I. His naivety was shattered; he had become a new person in that moment. He realized that his skin color was all that some people needed to know about him. And that made me furious.
For a while, I became distrustful of any White person I encountered. When I went into the grocery store, I did not bother to smile at any of my fellow patrons. In fact, if a White person was walking in my direction, I would meet his or her gaze with a grimace. In a lecture hall, I would carefully observe my White classmates’ demeanors and how they approached me before engaging with them. My normally bubbly and outgoing personality turned to a suspicious one; I was guarding my heart from the possibility that I would personally face racial discrimination. My heart could not take it — I naturally thought the best of everyone around me, I always gave respect with the expectation of it being returned, I was seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. I needed to grow up. “Life isn’t fair,” they say. They were right.
For my family and I, the racist encounters have been mostly innocuous. For many others, they are far more destructive, even fatal.
And yet, like my father before me, I am still a patriot. My family’s patriotism is not in ceremony alone; my parents believed in America because it gave them a chance. Their chance came in the form of education. A consensus of most U.S. migrants will present a similar justification for their deep love for this nation.
Today in America, patriotism has been condensed to arguments about athletes taking a knee in protest during the national anthem, political alignment with a former president, and strong emotion surrounding a certain voting bill recently passed in Georgia. America was flawed from its conception; the Constitution serves as the original blueprint of our nation, but as time advances, we should advance with it. Black Americans were not seen as human but as property when the original Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791. Loving America does not mean ignoring its history or current actuality; I love America for what it did for my parents — I love that America is built on ambition, built on an idea of civic impartiality and opportunity. I believe that the brilliance of the founding of our nation are the processes in place for reinventing it as need be. These processes are in place to minimize the gap between America’s ideals and its reality. Our nation performs best when we are in a state of unity.
America needs a new definition of patriotism; the people who claim to be patriots today are not making America great. We — as citizens, as patriots — are obligated to make choices, in our personal lives and through government, to actually make America great.
Yet through all of this, I have hope.
I have hope for the future. I remain with that hope, even through the catastrophe that was the Trump administration, the devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic, the senseless slaughters of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, and now Daunte Wright, among many others. I have hope through these events because of the possibility that they may act as a stepping stone and push us to a new, brighter tomorrow.
We are all warranted “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as stated by the Declaration of Independence.
America has reinvented itself before when it was needed — from slavery being outlawed to women’s rights to LGBTQ+ rights to our first Black president. We have done it multiple times before. Led by the vivacious, insistent youth, the nation may be on the brink of change once again; it is now just about wanting it hard enough. This and this only is the truest form of patriotism.