What Does It Mean To Love America?

Not unpatriotic at all. Rather, a profile in courage.

I saw a glimpse of the United States of America that I love and it was beautiful.

I spent the weekend with the wonderful 2016 cohort of the artEquity’s facilitator training. artEquity is an organization whose goal is to create a diverse, well-equipped cadre of national facilitators who can support equity-based initiatives nationwide. We spent a weekend confronting issues of race, power, privilege and identity. We danced and held each other and cried. Carmen Morgan, artEquity’s founder, said something that will stay with me forever:

The beauty of this group is what we’re working for. When we remove all of this stuff [privilege, oppression, etc.] that’s when I can love you. [Social justice] work isn’t just for something to do. Once we remove those barriers, we can be fully human and in contact with each other’s humanity.

I want to be in contact with everyone’s humanity.

San Francisco 49ers vs. Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on September 9, 2012. Photo by Mike Morbeck.
San Francisco 49ers vs. Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on Sept. 9, 2012. Photo: Mike Morbeck.

For the last few months, I’ve been struggling with what it means to love one’s country. I will begin by saying that I do love my country. I think of the opportunities I have had in my 32 years of existence, and I smile at the uniquely American aspects of my story. I can trace five generations in this country. I am the daughter and granddaughter of veterans and civil servants. I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I love my country.

I am also a firm believer that love is both feeling and action: I want to enact the love I feel. As a polyamorous person, I also believe that love is an infinite resource. I can love my country and love other countries with the same passion and commitment.

My love for these United States is not without its complications. I have talked about the ways in which the US does not appreciate or recognize Black women. Issues of systemic racism, police brutality, oppression and marginalization are well-documented. Terrible things have been, and are currently, done in the name of “liberty and justice for all.” There are many moments when this country is unlovable. I often return to a favorite quote from James Baldwin:

I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.

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I can, and I do, show love of country by demanding that this country live up to its ideals, and I will call it out when it falls short. That is why I will no longer stand for the national anthem or recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

I will love my country by asking it, as I have asked us all, to do better.

I am inspired by Colin Kaepernick, not because he is the first to take this type of stand, but because of the conversations his actions have catalyzed.

As Michael Eric Dyson explained:

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit, instead of stand, during the playing of the national anthem to protest injustice against black folk caused the predictable uproar. Despite the inevitable backlash, Kaepernick says he is “going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change, and when there’s significant change — and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way it’s supposed to — I’ll stand.”

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The “inevitable backlash” has been fascinating to watch. People have come out of the woodwork to accuse Kaepernick “of being unpatriotic, a traitor to the nation, a disruptive, self-aggrandizing narcissist, and a loathsome human being who disrespects the military.” The same masses who claimed that the Confederate flag was just a benign “symbol of history” are now demanding worship of the stars and stripes. The same (and worse) atrocities committed under the Confederate flag have also been committed under our flag.

Black people were declared three-fifths of a person under the 13-star version of the flag.

Recy Taylor was raped under the 48-star version of the flag.

Philando Castile was killed on video under the 50-star version of the flag.

shirley_chisholm_for_president_button_womens_museumI will not stand for flags, songs or symbols that don’t stand for me. There are many moments in our nation’s history in which our flags, songs and symbols have represented ideals that I believe in, such as Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 presidential campaign and Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. But there have been just as many moments in which individuals have questioned what it means to respect the symbols more than the ideals and individuals they are supposed to represent. It is in this tradition that I reject rote nationalism and American exceptionalism. It is because these symbols are imbued with meaning that I ask them to be worthy.

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I no longer wish to “perform” patriotism in order to be palatable to others.

I will do my best to exemplify patriotism by holding myself and my country to higher standards.

I will not settle for replicating behaviors, including patriotism, that are based on white mediocrity:

Whites are considered good pretty much without any reference to actual standards. If Americans used standards, like does this person contribute to society, to the common good, then we’d have to admit that many white people don’t measure up and don’t even try to measure up because they are not expected to. White people are considered to be good based on their demographic, not based on any actual criteria. This is more of a social problem than a personal one; it’s about American society’s low expectations and how those low expectations shape behavior. The culture is set up to ensure that whites are mediocre (or worse) and that non-white people suffer because of the low standards to which white people are held.

There is a version of the US that I can, and will, stand for. It is the version that I experienced through artEquity. It is the version that allows for all of us to come together in our differences. The version that acknowledges both systemic and individual inequity. The version of the US that recognizes the troubled and terrible parts of its history as often as the lauded ones.

I love the United States of America and I will pledge my allegiance to it when it becomes worthy of that love. Until then, I will sit when the song is sung and I will do the work that needs to be done.