Sandra Tan and Emma D. Sapong, Buffalo News, March 2, 2009
Black Americans don’t usually descend on Washington, D. C., waving the Stars and Stripes.
That changed in January. Hundreds of thousands of black men and women returned to the Mall in D. C. with flags in hand. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder with many white Americans and proclaimed how proud they were to be citizens of this nation.
No American likes to be labeled “unpatriotic.” Yet for decades, the concept of patriotism among African-Americans has been difficult to define–one clouded by a legacy of slavery, racism and discrimination.
As in any community, feelings of patriotism are wide ranging among African-Americans. Yet many would agree that their feelings for the United States are complicated.
History of commitment
Local black leaders, military veterans and residents point to black history as evidence of their long commitment to this country. From the days of slavery to present times, they said, African-Americans helped build this nation and defend it.
“African-Americans were the first to die in the Revolutionary War,” Mesiah said, “and we’ve been involved in the military in every single war this country has had.”
Lillian S. Williams, an associate professor of African-American history at the University at Buffalo, said blacks in the military faced every imaginable form of discrimination.
Buffalo resident Dewitt Lee, 31, said his patriotism has been rooted exclusively in the triumphs of trailblazing African-Americans who pushed for civil rights and equality.
“I understand what we’ve done to build this country as black Americans,” said Lee, promotions director at WUFO radio, which organized a bus trip to the inauguration. “I value the lives that came before me and the sacrifices that were made to make this country what it is. It would be wrong for me to not recognize what they’ve done to pave the way.”
Struggling to make it
Some question how it’s possible to love a country that, in many instances, hasn’t loved them back. While blacks have made great strides in this country, many bristle at the notion that it’s time they got over the past and embraced this country’s greatness.
“If anyone thinks that you can simply get over the memories of your great-grandmother not having the opportunity to read, or your great-great-grandmother being enslaved,” said Pridgen, 44, “You should just ‘get over it’ because someone is elected, or because there are certain opportunities? They are sadly mistaken. It takes time for any great hurt to be healed.”
Even African-Americans who consider themselves very patriotic may not necessarily embrace all the visual trappings of red, white and blue.
“Those people who have been staunch flag wavers are associated with staunch opponents of black liberation,” said UB professor Williams.
“America has some flaws,” Pridgen said. “However, there is not another country that I could be shipped off to, that I would want to go to. Even though it has its flaws, it has a process where involved people can change the flaws, or repair those flaws.”
Obama, many said, is the best example. They noted that in no other country has a black man been elected to lead a nation in which the majority of its citizens aren’t also black.
“My love for America has grown to include America as a whole, because . . . the majority of the country voted for Obama,” Lee said. “They looked past the things on the surface and considered what really counts, and that’s the content of a man’s character.”