I was lecturing a friend one day about the need to vote when he countered with a question about my civic duty: Why don’t you ever stand for the national anthem?
An awkward silence followed his question and then he added: “I never asked why. I thought you had some feelings about America. I figured you had your reasons.”
He was right. Long before NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the anthem, I started remaining seated when it was played. I didn’t do it for attention or to protest. As a person of color, I just couldn’t relate to the America that the anthem rhapsodized. How do I love a country that doesn’t love my people back? Patriotism, I thought, was the language of white America; it didn’t speak to me.
But something has shifted within me during the last eight years, and it goes beyond witnessing the election of the nation’s first black president. President Barack Obama and others have redefined what it means to “love America.”
I’m seeing the birth of a new brand of patriotism that finally speaks to me and other nonwhite Americans.
I bring up Obama and patriotism now because so many people are reflecting on his legacy. The Obama era is being described as a prelude to the “browning of America” when racial minorities become the majority in the future.
Yet I think it’s the prelude to something even more. The definition of what it means to love America will expand. The browning of America won’t just change how the country looks in the future; it will change how Americans express patriotism, because racial minorities bring different histories to this notion of America as the “land of the free.”
I know I do. I’ve long felt ambivalent when people tell me I should love America. I wonder what America are they talking about. Should I just be happy, as one white man once told me, that my ancestors were rescued from the jungles of Africa and brought to the greatest country in the world?
That man embodied the “love it or leave” attitude that I associate with flag wavers. It’s a pugnacious patriotism that one can hear in country singer Merle Haggard’s song, “The Fighting Side of Me.” Haggard released the song as anti-war protests surged during the Vietnam War.
I hear people talkin’ bad,
About the way we have to live here in this country,
Harpin’ on the wars we fight,
An’ gripin’ ‘bout the way things oughta be.
An’ I don’t mind ‘em switchin’ sides,
An’ standin’ up for things they believe in.
When they’re runnin’ down my country, man,
They’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.
That’s the type of kick-butt patriotism I believed in when I was growing up. My childhood heroes were soldiers like Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier in World War II. I read his biography, “To Hell and Back,” three times in junior high school. I almost cried when Davy Crockett died near the end of the movie “The Alamo.” I plastered US Marine memorabilia on the walls of my boyhood bedroom.
I didn’t think about it at the time, but all my childhood heroes were white men carrying guns, typically with American flags waving in the background. I vaguely knew about people like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but they didn’t excite me. Singing “We Shall Overcome” didn’t compare to storming the sands of Iwo Jima. I thought there was no greater courage than to go to war for your country.
Then I came across a group of college students who taught me about another type of courage.
When patriotism becomes dangerous
I was channel surfing one day when I stumbled upon a PBS documentary on the Freedom Riders. They were an interracial group of college students who decided to sit next to one another on bus rides through the Deep South in the early 1960s. They were trying to desegregate interstate bus travel.
Sitting next to a person of another race on a bus doesn’t sound dangerous. But you risked death if you did that in the segregated South. Many Freedom Riders actually signed last wills and testaments before the trips because they didn’t expect to return. Their fears were not unfounded. They were attacked by mobs wielding baseball bats and chains. Several were almost beaten to death. Many would carry physical and psychological scars for the rest of their lives. All were unarmed. Their only weapon: faith that their country could be better.
This was a dangerous type of patriotism, not a polite demonstration or mild civil disobedience. It was the kind that could get you fired from your job, shunned by your community, beaten or killed.
Yet it was the kind of patriotism that made progress possible in America, said Ralph Young, author of “Dissent: The History of an American Idea.” He said people often forget the United States was founded by political and religious dissenters fleeing Europe. They put the right to dissent in the Constitution, he said.
“Dissent is the fuel for the engine of progress,” said Young, a history professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. “Inertia is built into institutions. Things don’t change unless people push for change.”
How Obama legitimized another brand of patriotism
Most of us were taught in school that dissent is patriotic. Dissenters are venerated, but usually only after they’re dead and neutered by time. During war, economic uncertainty or massive social change, the “love it or leave it” form of patriotism rules.
Yet something different has happened during the Obama era. He has helped legitimize the dangerous type of patriotism. He’s done this through words and deeds.
No other president has talked about patriotism the way Obama has. It’s a type of patriotism many nonwhite Americans can finally see themselves in.
Consider Obama’s speech in Selma, Alabama, last year. Some consider it his own “Gettysburg Address.” He gave it at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, commemorating the epic civil rights campaign that spawned the Voting Rights Act.
In that speech, Obama declared that America is great not just because of what it was, but because of what it is becoming. He said “America is not some fragile thing” that can’t tolerate citizens demanding change.
“What greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical?” he asked.
He called members of disparaged groups – gays and lesbians, Mexican immigrants – American heroes. He praised the “hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande” and “the gay Americans whose blood ran on the streets of San Francisco and New York.”
He also put women, not white men in powdered wigs, at the center of the America story. He cited a 19th century former slave who became an abolitionist and champion of women’s rights, and another civil rights activist from the 1960s whose fiery eloquence forced America to face the brutality of segregation in the Deep South.
“Look at our history,” he said. “We are Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as men and then some.”
The Selma speech was Obama’s answer to critics who said he didn’t believe in American exceptionalism. He just redefined it, and as the country gets browner, I suspect this form of patriotism will become more accepted.
The Selma speech was hailed as a classic. In an Atlantic article entitled, “Finally I Hear a Politician Explain My Country Just the Way I Understand It,” the author James Fallows said Obama “expressed the essence of our American creed.”
Greg Jaffe, another commentator, compared the speech to Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” He said it “rewrote American history, putting America’s rebels, protest leaders, misfits, artists and immigrants at the center of the story.”
The speech spoke to America’s future – a time when the nation is expected to become “majority minority,” Jaffe wrote in the Washington Post.
“Selma is the first great presidential address to speak to that America and a speech only our first black president could give,” he wrote.
Obama expressed the same sentiments at another patriotic milestone: The dedication last month of a new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.
Again, the same concept – troublemakers past and present – are true patriots, he said.
“This is the place to understand how protests and love of country don’t merely coexist, but inform each other,” Obama said. “How men can probably win the gold for their country, but still insist on raising a black-gloved fist. How we can wear an I Can’t Breathe T-shirt, and still grieve for fallen police officers.”
This form of patriotism isn’t new. It’s the kind that people of color have had to develop because white America’s narrow definition of patriotism didn’t fit.
It is the type of patriotism that the black poet Langston Hughes expressed in his 1935 poem “Let America Be America Again.” In it, he gives his own variation of the call to make America great again.
O, let America be America again-
The land that never has been yet-
And yet must be-
Patriotism in unlikely places
Never has this type of patriotism been expressed so forcefully from the highest office in the land. Yet I’ve watched it spread to ordinary American life in so many different ways.
It is a patriotism that insists on seeing the good, bad and ugly of America’s past.
One reason I didn’t stand for the anthem is because I didn’t feel this country had ever officially acknowledged its original sin, slavery. There was a museum that commemorated the European holocaust but there was none to acknowledge the African-American slave trade.
But the African-American museum in Washington has changed that fact. Slavery is dealt with head-on. On display is an actual slave cabin, a receipt for a teenage girl slave, and an iron neck-ring forged for another slave.
There are other signs that the nation is more willing to recognize its other “original sin,” the virtual genocide of Native Americans. There’s a burgeoning movement to replace Columbus Day celebrations with “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” honoring Native Americans. At least 26 cities are replacing Columbus Day with the new holiday.
And at a White House conference last month hosted by Obama, the federal government agreed to pay $492 million to 17 Native American tribes for mismanaging their funds and natural resources. The Obama administration has now settled at least 100 tribal claims, some over a century old. Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker said Obama “is the best president for Indian Country in the history of the United States.”
Beyond Washington, there are signs that Americans are thinking differently about patriotism.
When Muhammad Ali died earlier this year, he was treated like an American hero. Yet he was once one of the country’s most hated dissidents because he refused to fight for his country. Most of the tributes that followed his death pinned his greatness not on his boxing ability, but on his willingness to defy the government for his religious beliefs.
Today another black athlete is provoking fury for being “un-American”: Colin Kaepernick, with his refusal to stand for the national anthem. But compare the response Kaepernick has received to the scorn and professional exile that Ali endured.
Two weeks after Kaepernick’s protest, his jersey became the top seller in NFL sales. Other professional athletes followed his example. So have high school football teams throughout the nation. A professional soccer player, Megan Rapinoe, also took a knee while the anthem was played, later explaining that “being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties.”
Kaepernick even got an impassioned defense from an unlikely source: a former Navy SEAL.
Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura posted a video online in which he said he fully and completely supported Kaepernick. He literally saluted Kaepernick for having the courage of his convictions and said “whether I agree with him or not is irrelevant.”
Ventura recalled that he vetoed a bill when he was governor that would have required the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in every Minnesota public school.
“You know why?” he said in the video. “Because governments should not mandate patriotism. … Who mandated patriotism? The Germans in the 1930s.”
Americans are accustomed to public figures taking public stands on controversial issues. But for change to really take root, it has to occur away from the spotlight – and come from someone you’d never expect to see it in.
Which America do you believe in?
That’s what recently happened in Charlotte, North Carolina, a week after a black police officer killed a black man in front of his wife. The shooting sparked protests that turned violent and a man was shot to death during a demonstration.
With the city still on edge, a pastor decided to deliver a sermon. His name is Loran Livingston, and he is a white, conservative evangelical. He grew up during segregation in a rural area of North Carolina that was dominated by the Ku Klux Klan. He believes in the inerrancy of the Bible and is a military buff who collects guns and knives. The police officer who allegedly killed the man, sparking the protest, is a member of his church.
One could have expected Livingston to give a hellfire sermon condemning the protesters in Charlotte, but the pastor said something different.
He condemned the violence and praised the police officers who took an oath to protect citizens. He also defended the officer in his congregation who was at the center of the protests, saying he did his sworn duty and “you will not find a finer young man.”
But he also said that many of the protesters had “genuine grievances,” and that many Americans don’t want to admit that there is a “caste system in the nation.”
As several members of his Central Church of God congregation stirred nervously in their seats, Livingston condemned “country club” Christian churches where all the members look alike and send their kids to private schools. He asked his congregation to consider the perspective of poor blacks living in Charlotte who see billion-dollar sports complexes sprout up while they struggle to make ends meet.
“And with all that, they turn on the TV and they watch someone who has no clue say make America great again,” Livingston thundered, “and these people are saying, ‘When was it ever great for me?’”
But maybe it could be one day. That’s the hope that has helped so many Americans in the past who felt like outsiders. How does society accommodate this new form of patriotism that incorporates the good, bad and ugly of America, but still looks forward to something better in the future?
Maybe I’ll never stand for the anthem. But for the first time as an adult, I can find the words and examples to explain why I think America is exceptional.
You may prefer the “love it or leave it” America. But I, and I suspect many others, believe in another America – “the one that never was and yet must be.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described an officer-involved shooting. It was a black officer who shot a black man in the Charlotte incident.