America is a complicated place. I am struggling with what it means to be an American patriot. As a Black person, the idea of patriotism is elusive at worst and difficult at best. Being the child of immigrants complicates matters even more. My roots don’t run deep in this country. They don’t go back further than me. But yet, here I am, a citizen – a resident of a country worth fighting for, that is built on ideals that I believe in.
I just finished reading President Obama’s inaugural address in his new role as ordinary citizen. It forced me to grapple with my identity as an American. He singularly makes me believe in the American experiment as he calls it. I believe in the august democratic principles that this nation is built on. The idea of a collection of nearly 350 million people from all over the world, without a common history, but committed to a common story, as members of a single representative democracy is fascinating to me. It is an experiment in human organization that I am committed to. That shared commitment, I think, is what unifies us as Americans. It is the thing upon which we can build national pride.
The ideal, however, doesn’t inoculate me from the facts – from the brutality of this country. America is also the country of slavery. Historically, White Americans, in collusion with their English relatives, agreed that Black people were subhuman. As part of the national doctrine it was legal for Black people to be bought and sold like animals. The revelation of White American barbarism is the legacy of Black people being mutilated, burned, raped, lynched, shot and disavowed.
That barbarous ideology is in the DNA of the nation. While generally speaking, it is no longer acceptable to hang Black people by our necks from trees at Sunday gatherings, there is no obvious litmus test to determine the extent to which that spirit has been exorcized from the American psyche. In fact, there is an abundance of evidence to suggest that it is alive and well, lurking in the shadows – protecting murderous police, allowing ineffective school systems and broken communities to persist, profiting on the mass imprisonment of thousands of Black people.
While I know these facts, I am still committed to the American ideal that President Obama reminded us of so beautifully. Perfection is something to aspire to, he said, but better is something to commit to. “Better is always worth fighting for.”
We can make our nation better.
That is the constant charge, that is the constant battle. In my view, that is the real tax we pay for the privilege of living here – the commitment to making it better.
President Obama has asked the question – what have we done for our country? What have we done to try to make the country a better place, not just for ourselves, but for others that are equally a part of the American story?
Right wing people are now trying to pit diversity as the enemy of unity. They suggest that the country ought to unify around a singular archetype of an American. Surely one that is White, conservative, doesn’t welcome Black or Brown people, only acknowledges heterosexual love and conflates money with merit.
They argue that diversity implies having nothing in common. Not only is that not true, it overlooks the enormous power of finding a common ideal from diverse experiences. Finding that common ideal is the work of citizenship. Achieving it is the perfect America at the heart of our national strivings.
Nowhere in their version of a unified America is the question – what have you done for your country? What have you done to make it better for everyone? How does diversity itself strengthen our shared commitment to the American ideal? They don’t ask those questions.
Against those suffocating in their negative and narrow narrative is the charge that President Obama has laid out. What have we done to make America better? What have we done to find harmony in this cacophony? When our shared commitment to the American story is laced and fortified with the diverse paths and reasons we came to that commitment, it can only be better. It can only be stronger.
While patriotism remains elusive for me, I am committed to the American story. I remain committed to better with an eye towards perfect.