The Challenge of Black Patriotism

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For Black Americans, loving the country and criticizing it have always been inseparable — something other Americans have often struggled to understand.

By Theodore R. Johnson, The New York Times

“The month after the surprise December 1941 military strike that left the Pearl Harbor naval station smoldering and Americans filled with anger and patriotic fervor, a letter to the editor arrived at The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation’s most-circulated Black weekly newspapers. Its author was James G. Thompson, a 26-year-old cafeteria worker at a factory in Wichita, Kan., that manufactured aircraft for the military….”

“’…I love America more than any other country in the world,’ James Baldwin wrote in “Notes of a Native Son,” “and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Or, as Thompson concluded in his letter to The Courier, “I love America and am willing to die for the America I know will someday become a reality.” This is the crux of Black patriotism, an expression of national praise and chastening drawn from the same well. It cannot know only uncritical adoration because history and lived experience remind us the nation has often been too cruel, and it cannot be only sharp tongues and elbows because our work and faith have had a hand in America’s existence and evolution….”

A man making the “Double V” sign outside a railroad station in Pittsburgh, about 1943. Harris/Carnegie Museum of Art/Getty Images

“…The early 20th century had an explosion of Black civic engagement. Civil rights organizations like the N.A.A.C.P. sprang to life; Black churches became even more central to political and social power; cultural movements like the Harlem Renaissance injected intellectual and artistic challenges to racism in America. Black military service members distinguished themselves in war, and brave Black citizens across the South and destinations of the Great Migration organized to challenge racism in their communities. In a 2017 journal article, the University of South Florida sociologist Micah E. Johnson suggests this conscious patriotism remains a common orientation in Black America, being “equally connected to both America as a homeland and the realities of Black oppression in America….”

“…Over all, the study [‘American Fabric: Finding Our Shared Identity’] finds that conservatives tend to define America by its perceived strengths and that progressives tend to emphasize its perceived weaknesses.

Black Americans, of course, do both. Black patriotism does not hold that America is irredeemably racist — it asks if America is interested in redemption. It is forward-looking and informed by history, meshing optimism about the nation’s prospects with a realism about its struggles with racial equality. And it is rooted in the task of helping the nation reconcile “Black” with “American.” As Joe Biden put it last month in a speech at Gettysburg that nodded at the promise of America without shying away from its troubles: ‘I think about what it takes for a Black person to love America. That is a deep love for this country.’”

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