Speaking in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in February 2008, while her husband was still campaigning for President, the future first lady Michelle Obama stunned many when she declared, “… for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country and not just because Barack has done well but because I think people are hungry for change and I have been desperate to see our country moving in that direction and just not feeling so alone in my frustration and disappointment.” While during the rally her comments were met with applause, almost immediately the media pounced. People questioned her patriotism and her allegiance to a country her husband was campaigning to represent. Things worked out. However, I remember thinking at the time how much I valued her honesty in that moment. It clearly wasn’t scripted and frankly, I don’t know any intellectual who didn’t know exactly what she meant.
With all the recent controversy over Colin Kaepernick (the football player calling national attention to police killings of unarmed people of color by lowering himself to one knee during the National Anthem), it has reignited the debate about what patriotism is and who has the right to exercise it.
According to Merriam-Webster, patriotism is defined simply as the “love for or devotion to one’s country.” The word is derived from the latin word “patriota” which means countryman. The noun “patriotism” began to popularize in 18th century Europe to inspire a love and loyalty of their country in students. Interestingly, during the American revolution, revolutionaries, those fighting for American independence, were dubbed “Patriots.” Although they were rejecting the ruling British monarch, they were committed to the principles of republicanism which held liberty and unalienable individual rights as central values, making white men sovereign and rejecting monarchy, aristocracy, inherited political power and corruption.
As a thinking child of color being raised and educated in the United States, it doesn’t take long to recognize your place in this country’s celebrated history. During the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the same folks that declared “all men are created equal” also drafted the Three-Fifths Compromise which counted non-voting enslaved Africans as three-fifths of a person. Those same men denied women the right to vote. This conflict between principle and practice was a theme throughout history and still resonates today.
“All I could think while he was bellowing out “land of the free and home of the brave” was that the song was written in 1814. His ancestors, while brave, were anything but free. Was it my responsibility in that moment to interrupt the song my then five year old was so proud to sing to me and tell him the truth?”
Like most parents, I feel a responsibility to my children to tell them the truth. However, at six and nine, it isn’t always easy to know how much truth they can handle. Our history in this country can be complex. Our current primary education system doesn’t really allow for a discussion of that complexity. It is Eurocentric and designed to create loyalists, much in the same way the old British monarch envisioned it. As a parent, I want to reveal those complexities and challenge my children to think. However, I struggle with revealing the truth to them in a way that doesn’t burden them or make them feel anger and shame. Last year, my middle baby began Kindergarten. I remember how enthusiastic he was when he came home and insisted on singing the new song he had learned in music class. It was “The Star Spangled Banner,”our national anthem. All I could think while he was bellowing out “land of the free and home of the brave” was that the song was written in 1814. His ancestors, while brave, were anything but free. Was it my responsibility in that moment to interrupt the song my then five year old was so proud to sing to me and tell him the truth?
In present day society, as a mother of three brown boys I would be lying if I didn’t admit loving them involves a considerable amount of worry. Police corruption and violence is a reality. The school to prison pipeline is a reality. Mass incarceration is a reality. All of which disproportionately impact humans that look like them. I can’t deny my disappointment in a government and citizenship that makes it a habit of looking the other way rather than committing to its own founding principles and insisting on change. Watching Kaepernick take a knee and a multitude of athletes follow suit, I can’t help but recognize the act as a direct affront to that conflict I recognized as a child. The physical act calls attention to the disparities between principle and practice. Viewing the act through a parental gaze, I can only hope that my boys would make a similar choice one day. Although they may never have the opportunity to take a knee on a national stage, I would hope they would question the reality of the world around them and be brave enough to take action, much like this country’s Founding Fathers did even if our people were left on the side lines. To recall the 2008 words of our first lady, I have “been desperate to see our country moving in [the direction of change]” and to not feel “so alone in my frustration and disappointment.”
“If no one ever criticized their governments, there would be no abolition of slavery, no civil rights movement and frankly, no United States of America.”
Which begs the question, what do I teach my children about patriotism? Is it to stand on the side of those that say America “right or wrong”? Those that hurl racial epithets and demand revocation of citizenship to those that hold America accountable to its own standards? Or is it to stand on the side of those that recognize the complexity and disappointment that can sometimes go along with American citizenship? Those that recognize that there is still an underclass of people brandished to the side lines? Leading question, right? Obviously for me, the answer is to stand on the side of the thinkers. Blind loyalty above criticism is the antithesis of patriotism. If no one ever criticized their governments, there would be no abolition of slavery, no civil rights movement and frankly, no United States of America.
I want my children to question everything and challenge the status quo. I want them to seek knowledge even if it means stepping outside of what makes them comfortable and admitting when they are wrong. I didn’t stop my five year old from singing the National Anthem. However, as my children get older, I hope to act as their teacher, unfolding the truths hidden in history. I hope to encourage their questions, their skepticism and their empathy for the citizens left out or addressed as footnotes. I hope we can be truth seekers together, since I am the product of the same education system. I hope with that truth comes criticism. In fact, I expect it. If one day those choices are met with the label of unpatriotic, by today’s definition, I can only be proud.
About The Author
Faye McCray is an attorney by day and writer all the time. Her work has been featured on My Brown Baby, AfroPunk, AfroNews, For Harriet, Madame Noire, Black Girl Nerds, Black and Married with Kids, and other popular publications. Faye also has a number of short stories and a full length novel available for purchase on Amazon. Most importantly, Faye is a proud wife and mother to three beautiful and talented young boys who she is fiercely passionate about raising. You can find Faye on Twitter @fayewrites and on the web at fayemccray.com.