By Irene Monroe, published in WGBH News on July 2, 2020.
This Fourth of July, Americans are being forced to see the nation’s celebration for independence differently. The combination of the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Black Americans, and the ongoing protests in response to the police killing of George Floyd have brought attention to this nation’s centuries-old history of anti-Black violence.
The death of George Floyd, a cis-gendered male, symbolizes the present face of anti-Black violence — just as the death of Matthew Shepard, a white gay male, symbolized homophobic violence after his murder in 1998. As a matter of fact, Floyd’s death appears to be an inflection point and wake-up call for white America.
The confrontation with Black Lives Matter protestors and police during this pandemic has created the perfect storm for America’s democracy to face its not-so-storied past. On the holiday this Saturday, most of us will be home with family and loved ones, in front of computers or televisions, watching fireworks exploding and people singing the “Star-Spangled Banner,” reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or reenacting the Continental Congress of 1776. However, what does this year’s Fourth of July mean to Black America?
The same question was asked on July 5, 1852, by Frederick Douglass. In his historic speech, “What, to the slave, is the Fourth of July?” he stated to a country in the throes of slavery the following: “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence. … I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.”
A century-plus later, the “immeasurable distance” between Black and white America is revealed in every metric in society — health, wealth, education and employment, to name a few. The deleterious effects of 250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow followed by 60 years of “separate but equal” rule of law, brought about the gaping disparities. The core principles in American democracy stated in the Declaration of Independence are the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s what Black America is still striving for peacefully.
However, the current civil unrest is a direct result of not being heard.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his Montgomery Bus Boycott speech on December 5, 1955, “The great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.” In 2016, San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick protested against police brutality and racial inequality — the same protest that is now taking place on the streets of America and across the globe. Kaepernick kneeled instead of the mandatory standing during the national anthem. His action was seen as polarizing, un-American, and un-patriotic. But Kaepernick stood his ground — and paid a steep price for his moral stance.
It was an act of patriotism.
The NFL and the Americans who opposed Kaepernick could never understand the lived reality Black and brown men face with police brutality, sometimes resulting in a death like that of George Floyd. In 1968, Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos lifted their black-gloved fists as the national anthem played after they won the gold and bronze medals in the men’s 200-meter sprint — a gesture seen as radical and an endorsement of Black power.
When patriotism is narrowly defined, it can only be accepted and exhibited within the constraints of its own intolerance. For example, racism is baked in the story of American patriotism. The U.S. national anthem — the “Star-Spangled Banner,” written by Francis Scott Key and sung at major sports events and every Fourth of July — is one of the quintessential symbols of American patriotism. The song, however, is racist. The man who wrote the song was racist. The song wasn’t meant for all Americans when Key wrote the lyrics in 1814. Not only was slavery nearing its second century, but Key was also from a wealthy and influential plantation family in Maryland. The song has a controversial third verse that was never sung at events or ceremonies because it was offensive — especially after 1865, the end of slavery. The verse stated the following: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”
Key’s love for America is a patriotism that doesn’t include Black Americans — the enslaved people who, with blood, sweat, tears, and forced labor, built the country he so revered. Centuries later, Black expressions of patriotism are still denounced and demonized, especially in this era, if expressed oppositional to the status quo, which is defined by President Donald Trump and his MAGA rallies. However, the act of patriotism — when not hijacked or censored by extremists, racists, or dictated by those in power — are bold and courageous steps that express dissenting thoughts against popularly held beliefs and rituals.
American Revolutionary hero Patrick Henry is an example.
“Give me liberty or give me death,” he stated in a speech on March 23, 1775, in which he explained how he viewed his patriotism differently. “No man thinks highly than I do of patriotism … but different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining as I do opinions of a character very opposite to theirs.”
The act of patriotism Patrick Henry expressed allowed for marginalized voices to participate in a thriving democracy. However, democracy can only begin to work when those relegated to the fringes of society can begin to sample what others take for granted as their inalienable right. It’s the patriotism Kaeperneck exhibited at NFL games — now seen on the streets of America — that we need more of.
Published in WGBH News on July 2, 2020.