Patriotism and Our Children

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 Constitution 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.

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 anMcCray_AuthorPhoto (1) attorney by day and writer all the time. Her work has been featured on My Brown Baby, AfroPunk, AfroNews, For HarrietMadame NoireBlack Girl NerdsBlack 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

Colin Kaepernick Wasn’t The First To Challenge Blind Patriotism

Given the level of media coverage of his actions, you would think Colin Kaepernick was the first person to challenge blind patriotism. However, here are six other public figures that refused to honor their countries because of moral or political reasons.

Featured Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty

On August 26, 2016, before a preseason game, Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers chose to sit instead of stand during the playing of the United States National Anthem.  During a post-game interview, Kaepernick stated, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media.

“To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Although both the 49ers and the National Football League have declined to take disciplinary action, public reaction has been mixed.  Some are calling him unpatriotic while others are calling his civil act of disobedience heroic.  Given the level of media coverage of his actions, you would think Kaepernick was the first person to challenge blind patriotism.  However, here are six other public figures that refused to honor their countries because of moral/political reasons:

1. Frederick Douglass 


On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass was invited to give a speech at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, held at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, NY. The audience got more than they bargained for when instead he told them,”This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” He went on to ask, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?”

In his speech, which became one of his most famous, he said:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?  I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim… There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”

Frederick Douglass was arguably the most famous orator of the 19th century and was the most photographed person of the 19th century.  He sat for several pictures because he wanted to show the dignity of Black people during a time when minstrel shows were prominent.

2. Muhammad Ali 


On April 28, 1967, boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the United States Army and his heavyweight boxing title was subsequently taken away. Ali, who converted to Islam and changed his name in 1964, cited religious reasons for his decision to forgo military service. However, in March 1967, Ali explained:

“I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality… If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail. We’ve been in jail for four hundred years.”

On June 20, 1967, Ali was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000 and banned from boxing for three years. He stayed out of prison as his case was appealed and returned to the ring on October 26, 1970.  On June 28, 1971, the Supreme Court of the United States overturned his conviction for refusing the draft.Muhammad Ali would go on to be an international symbol of strength and perserverance despite incredible odds.  His public battle with Parkinson’s disease while maintaining a very active lifestyle inspired millions.  

3. Tommie Smith and John Carlos


On October 16, 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, winners of the gold and bronze medals in the 200 meter sprint, bowed their heads and each raised one fist in protest during the playing of the national anthem.  The men wore black socks with no shoes to symbolize poverty in many African American communities, and black gloves to represent our strength. Smith also wore a scarf and Carlos wore beads in memory of lynching victims.   Both men were banished by the International Olympic Committee and suspended from the United States team.  They both suffered ostracism from the track and field community and Olympic community for years afterward. Tommie Smith is quoted as saying:

“It was only done to bring attention to the atrocities of which we were experiencing in a country that was supposed to represent us.”

Prior to the Olympics, both men were involved with the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) where they had originally called for a boycott of the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games unless four conditions were met: 1) South Africa and Rhodesia were uninvited from the Olympics because they were nations that practiced apartheid, 2) the restoration of Muhammad Ali’s world heavyweight boxing title, 3) Avery Brundage to step down as president of the IOC, who they believe supported racist regimes, and 4) the hiring of more African American assistant coaches. Although the boycott failed to materialize, the men still made history.

4. Jackie Robinson


In his 1972 autobiography, I Never Had It Made, American Baseball League Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, described the moment when he confronted his own hesitation to stand during the National Anthem at a major league baseball game.

“There I was,” he wrote. “The black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor.” He continued:

“As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”

Throughout his historic career, Robinson was the target of racial epithets, baseball field violence, hate letters, and death threats.

4. Charles Roach

Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Canadian Press


Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Charles Roach immigrated to Canada in 1955.  He attended the University of Toronto Law School and became an important civil rights attorney and activist in Toronto.

Roach sought Canadian citizenship; however, it never materialized because he refused to swear loyalty to a colonialist sovereign.  To become a Canadian citizen, one must pledge the following: “I… do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors. So help me God.” As a result of refusing to pledge, Roach gave up the right to vote, run for public office, and attain a Canadian passport.  However, non-citizens bear the burden of still paying the same taxes as regular citizens and the risk of deportation for committing certain crimes.  Roach also reportedly declined an opportunity to become a judge over his principled stance against taking the oath.

Throughout his career, he fought to change Canada’s citizenship requirements to allow people to swear an oath to Canada instead of the throne, which he said represented a legacy of oppression, imperialism and racism.  For the majority of his adult life, he fought several court cases where he argued that an oath of allegiance to a sovereign is unconstitutional.  The cases proved unsuccessful, but his fight gained much attention and support.  As he stated in 2011:

“I don’t believe that anyone should have a political status just because of your birth and I feel strongly about that.  For that reason, I wouldn’t take an oath to any such institution, which is based on race and religion.”

Roach had several high profile cases where he aided members of the Black Panthers from the United States who were seeking political asylum in Canada.  He also helped form the Black Action Defence Committee, which pushed for the creation of Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit, a civilian-led unit, which investigates cases where officers seriously injure or kill people.

Despite efforts of long time colleagues, when Roach passed away in 2012, Canada refused to grant Roach citizenship posthumously.

5. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf 


In 1996, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was a starting point guard for the Denver Nugggets.  During the national anthem, he would stretch or stay inside the locker room instead of taking the floor.  When a reporter finally asked about it, Abdul-Rauf said he viewed the American flag as a symbol of oppression and racism. Abdul-Rauf also said standing for the anthem would conflict with his Muslim faith.

“You can’t be for God and for oppression…” he said at the time. “I don’t criticize those who stand, so don’t criticize me for sitting.”

Abdul-Rauf was suspended for one game on March 12, 1996.  The NBA cited a rule that players must line up in a “dignified posture” for the anthem. Although the player’s union supported him, he lost $32,000 in salary.  For the remainder of the season, Abdul-Rauf agreed to stand but to pray for the oppressed with his head down during the national anthem. At the end of the season, the Nuggets traded Abdul-Rauf to the Sacramento Kings.  At the time, he was leading the team in points (19.2) and averaged 6.2 assists.  After his contract expired in 1998, he played overseas and had a brief stint back in the league with the Vancouver Grizzlies in the 2000-2001 season.


Information attained from:

  • “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro”
  • Muhammad Ali refuses Army induction,
  • “Muhammad Ali Refuses to Fight in Vietnam (1967)
  • David Davis, Olympic Athletes Who Took a Stand, SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE,
  • Andy Blatchford, After decades fighting monarchy oath in citizenship requirements, Toronto activist dies without becoming Canadian, The Canadian Press
  • Jesse Washington, Still no anthem, still no regrets for Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf,
  • Kirsten West Savali, Jackie Robinson in 1972: ‘I Cannot Stand and Sing the Anthem; I Cannot Salute the Flag’



About The Author

Rick McCray is a maRAMrried father of three amazing sons. He is also a proud graduate of Duke University where he holds a BA in History and African/African American History, and Howard University School of Law. He is also a regular commentator on the In The Black podcast.  Rick is passionate about our history and helping to educate our community concerning the great contributions of people of color to the world. You can find Rick on Twitter @RealRickMcCray.