When Timothy Berry decided to attend the U.S. Military Academy West Point, patriotism was one of his driving factors. He describes it as an active verb, not merely “a flag waving.”
“I have always had a profound appreciation for what this country has said its ideals are,” Berry said. “But being a Black American, in particular, one that served in uniform, I’ve quickly realized that there were just a lot of contradictions in there.”
Berry served as class president at West Point in 2013, one of few Black class presidents in the military academy’s history. He now lives in New York and is a co-founder of Collaborate and Graduate, a nonprofit aimed at increasing representation in the military officer ranks.
“I think for Black veterans in particular, once you go overseas and you get back here, it’s something you just can’t get over, when things aren’t the way they should be,” he said. “There are countless examples of shortcomings that this country has had, and ways it needs to get better.”
Just one-quarter of Black voters describe themselves as “proud” of the state of America today, compared to nearly half of whites, according to a poll released last month by The New York Times and Siena College. A little more than 6 in 10 Black voters say they feel “hopeful” about the state of the country. More than 8 in 10 Black voters say they feel “exhausted.”
“I think that if anywhere you find just how heterogeneous Black Americans are, it’s around this question of patriotism,” said Farah Jasmine Griffin, the chair of the African American and African Diaspora Studies Department at Columbia University. “You have African Americans who are definitely patriotic, but not uncritically so, not naively so. And then you have others who find a problem with the very notion of patriotism, and I think that’s always been an ongoing and consistent tension.”
We broached this topic in a series of conversations with more than a dozen Black people across the country from various backgrounds. At the core of all of the conversations was a question of conflict: How do Black people in America reconcile experiences of racism and systemic discrimination with pride in their country?
“As a Black American, it’s always hard to express the fact that I am patriotic and what that means to me,” said Jonathan Horton, who lives in Pasadena, Calif., and works for Democratic Rep. Judy Chu.
“It’s such a tragedy, because I feel kind of entitled to patriotism. Our ancestors built this country. We should be able to be proud of it, and it should serve us just like it serves everyone else,” he said. “But more often than not, it’s not serving us equally.”
Kathy Watson of Annapolis, Md., said that “being an American alone should band us together.”
“I stand for the national anthem, always have,” said Watson, 46. “Black people have willingly fought and died for this. Every day when I drive to one of my businesses I drive through plantations, and honestly, I know I make my ancestors proud.”
Watson is a small business owner who is raising sons. She said that there’s “no other country” she’d want to live in.
“As a black person, as a mom, does America have its problems? Yes,” she said. “But I personally feel that we need to stop looking at this as though this entire country is racist against us, when in fact that is not the case.”
Monica Moore grew up on Chicago’s South Side, but in the seventh grade she started attending progressively whiter schools.
“I think it might have been early high school when some of the white kids would talk about being, you know, Irish American or Italian American or French American,” she recalled. “And it dawned on me that I don’t have access to that kind of information about my heritage. That was when I started to realize that, even though I’m American and America’s the only place that I know, I don’t feel like this country is talking about me when they talk about Americans or American ideals.”
Moore said that she first began to think about patriotism more concretely when then-candidate Barack Obama was elected president. On election night in 2008, she remembered catching the bus to go home from a music rehearsal.
“There was this eerie silence and stillness, and I could feel the gravity of the moment. I remember so much pride, personally, but also in the city at that time,” she said.
But Moore also remembered some of the negative reactions to Obama’s election. “I remember just thinking how messed up it was, the sorts of things that we heard people say about him,” she said. “I would call them dog whistles, but there was nothing silent about it. I think that’s when I really started to grapple with the idea of patriotism in a more concrete way.”
Brandon Hampton lives in Atlanta, within biking distance of where Rayshard Brooks was killed last month. The 39-year-old said that the last few weeks have been, “pensive and anxious” for him. He’s been spending a lot of time talking to his nephews about the state of the country.
He described patriotism in the way that one might describe the relationship with a beloved relative.
“When you love something, you demand better from it,” he said. “That’s good parenting: If you love your child, you don’t look at everything your child does and say, ‘Oh, that’s great!’ At some point you are going to have to teach them a lesson or instill a value in them that they haven’t been expressing.”
“You have to correct the behavior,” he said. “And if you love the country, you have to correct the behavior.”
Rebekah Brevard has been thinking critically about what patriotism means for her for the last six years. She and her husband Abraham live in Long Beach, Calif.
“It’s been a weird journey of seeing what patriotism was supposed to be, which is love of country,” she said. “And seeing how it actually is, which is blind love of country.
Brevard has been specifically thinking about some of the things she learned growing up in her biracial family, but didn’t feel comfortable questioning then.
“Patriotism growing up in my family was a really big thing. Military background, serving your country was really important. And the sacrifices that soldiers made was really emphasized,” she said. “And then, on the other hand, we would talk about, like, the civil rights movement. But the two never combined.”
She wasn’t the only person to draw a link between patriotism and the struggle for civil rights. Armond Bragg of Birmingham, Ala., did, too. The 75-year-old was active in the civil rights movement during the 1960s.
When asked how he saw patriotism, Bragg described himself as “from the school of Colin Kaepernick,” the former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who sparked a movement when he knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality .
“I believe in kneeling on one knee to protest what’s going on in this country,” Bragg said.
As he’s watched protests continue, Bragg has wondered how much has changed.
“You know, there’s not a better song to listen to than the national anthem. It can at times give you goose bumps. But knowing what’s happening in the country, we don’t have these patriotic desires as we used to have, even when we were dealing with segregation,” he said.
In Richmond, Va., where the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue have been a focal point for demonstrations, Maya Rogers described the beauty of the scene.
“One day we were walking somewhere that had nothing to do with the protests, but it literally stopped us, the beauty of everyone being together and singing, and standing around the monument drew us in,” Rogers, 23, said. “Me personally, I’ve felt so many emotions because I feel like I’m walking in ancestors’ shoes in Richmond.”
She said that protesting made her feel like “a true American,” because she was “fighting for something she wanted to stand up for.”
Madea Neyor, 24, lives in New York but since the coronavirus pandemic took hold, she’s been quarantining with family in Delaware. That’s given her the chance to have conversations with family that grew up in Liberia.
“I’ve visited Liberia several times, being that both of my parents are from there, while growing up in the United States. I do see what it’s like and what it can do to a country when people are at unrest,” she said. “One of the great things about growing up here in the United States is getting that dual perspective.”
When asked how she thought about patriotism today, Neyor connected it to what she’d learned from her parents..
“I took it as, what can I do to help a country, a place that I love, be better,” she said. “Those are values of leadership that I think both my parents instilled in me, of being prideful of a country while assisting it and helping it to be better, too.”
Many people, including Andre Myrick in Charlottesville, Va., described the challenge of feeling attachment to this country, where progress has been both halting and uneven.
When asked about his experience learning about patriotism, Myrick brought up his father who is a Marine Corps veteran. He said his father cared a lot about service, but as time went on “even he felt less and less patriotic about patriotism, generally.”
Myrick said this is one of the first times in his life that he’s been finding his voice as it relates to issues of his own race.
“I’ve been going back and listening to civil rights leaders and just passionate black voices from the past. I was listening to a program with James Baldwin a couple of weeks ago, and he talks about speaking with a 16-year-old Black boy in San Francisco who feels like he doesn’t have a country,” said Myrick. “And Baldwin basically says, ‘I have nothing to say that proves that he does.’ That kind of sums up how I’ve been feeling of late.”
The Rev. Frantz Whitfield of Waterloo, Iowa, has also struggled with this challenge. When he first began decorating his office at Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, he hung a copy of the Declaration of Independence on the wall. Several years later, he took it down and replaced it with a Nelson Mandela campaign poster.
Whitfield, who is 38, said that when people ask why the campaign poster remains on his wall, he tells them that it’s because, while Nelson Mandela stood up for his rights, Whitfield’s country hasn’t stood up for his.
“As a black man, I really don’t take much pride in the independence of a country where I feel that in the year 2020, I have to talk about banning choke holds and police reform, all these years later,” he said. “I really feel like that’s something that should have been done years ago. I celebrate the history of my culture, my ancestors who sacrificed so much for me to have a somewhat comfortable life.”
Instead of celebrating the Fourth of July, Whitfield said he thinks about July 5, the day in 1852 when Frederick Douglass delivered a speech in which he said: “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”