You Can Love and Criticize Your Country at the Same Time

As America paused to celebrate Independence Day this weekend, a conversation I had on Facebook with a woman named Stacey really moved me, and I wanted to share it. We discussed the idea of patriotism and love of country. A “country love,” amidst the tremendous challenges that still face our great nation. I want to again thank Stacey for her honesty, and for her heartfelt comment. Her feelings are felt by many and it’s important that we all take stock of what our American patriotism means to us. It shouldn’t, I believe mean simply accepting our country in its totality flaws and all. It should mean waking up every day, recognizing its weaknesses, while celebrating our exceptional strengths, and passionately working to be a more perfect union. As you reflect on what it means to be an American in days following the 4th of July, consider exploring these ideas with those nearest to you. Here is her post and my response:

Stacey: I’m not feeling optimistic about the acceptance and plight of African Americans in this country today. The success stories are highlighted. But, as an urban educator who is seeing the daily damage of failed urban policies…whose brother was Cleveland’s first (senseless) murder of 2015……who is deeply saddened by Charleston’s painful massacre and the subsequent church burnings, I am not feeling like posting patriotic symbols today. I am thankful that you and I made it — but very troubled that there continues to be not much done to end the systems that keep us in our place….fighting over crumbs in the inner cities of America…..just let my comment serve as the reminder that this day is not about “country-love” to millions of marginalized African-Americans…..

My Response: Stacey, thank you for your post and the sincerity of your words. Thank you also for what you do with your life, every day, despite challenges, frustrations and, I imagine, disappointment. What you express is reflected in our history. How many lovers of America and our values have expressed anguish at how we are falling short.

Frederick Douglass gave a moving speech about The Fourth Of July and his anguish, frustration and sense demanding more honesty from our society.

I often imagine about the bleak outlook faced by so many Americans when they saw in our nation darkness, wretchedness, the failures to live our highest values. I often think about families who had their children working in factories, hands crippled by machinery, lungs filled with toxins — what could they have felt, how did they continue? Or what of the women of our nation, viewed more as property than as equal citizens, denied rights, denied suffrage, enduring abuses and attacks, what were they feeling or thinking amidst 4th of July celebrations? Or at what point did an Black mother not worry about their child — in the days of slavery? The days of Jim Crow?

The days of today, the days of mass incarceration when there is still no equal justice, when a black boy is almost four times more likely to get arrested than a white boy for crimes like nonviolent use of drugs even though there is no difference in usage? Yes, all of this and more could have made our ancestors surrender their sense of hope. But I draw a different realization from our history. Our American ancestors have shown us that hope is not the absence of despair, hope is a response to it. Hope is never letting despair have the last word. Hope is relational. You can’t have great hope without great despair. Our ancestors are heroes of hope and the fact that they chose hope amidst unimaginable pain should lift us now. They never gave up, they never surrendered to cynicism, they never stopped fighting, struggling, believing and working for the very values that we are celebrating today.

I will raise my flag, Stacey, I will put my hand over my heart and sing our mighty anthem, I will feel a deep allegiance to America today for to do this is to honor the spirit of the hopeful, the spirit of their sacrifice, their, unyielding, indefatigable, relentless belief and demand that this country would be more than it was, that our country could live up to her promise, to her words, to her potential. The Fourth of July should not be some shallow, saccharine, patriotism. This day should go deeper and be fearless in going fully into our truth as a nation.

Today is a time to honor the hopeful who answered despair, the long suffering who answered their pain with struggle, the believers in America who scarcely experienced her. It is a time to honor our nation formed in high ideal and with daring dreams and it is also a time to honor the courageous who gave so much that our country would be an ever improving and more perfect union. It is a time to honor those who didn’t drink of America’s liberty, who were denied America’s light, who were pushed down under America’s heel but who still fought, demanded and struggled so that America would achieve herself.

As Langston Hughes said:

“O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!”

So Stacey, I pray that today is a day for you to take full stock of our nation and her short comings, to see our nation in her whole truth, her extraordinary accomplishment, her genius, her beauty, her deep oceans of kindness and her exceptional achievements but see too her dark places, see her hypocrisy, see how she has fallen short, see how she still needs improvement, still needs heroes of hope, still needs dedicated, passionate servants, still needs those who would honor our legacy of constant and never ending struggle.

And I pray Stacey that when you take it all in, our history and present, that you look at America today and at her future and feel some inspiration, that you feel your ancestors embracing you, lifting you and calling on you not to feel “optimistic” as you say, but calling on you to be a prisoner of hope, calling on you not to let despair have the last word. . . . Yes, don’t let today diminish your anger, or dry your tears, but let it fuel your flame to keep fighting for America, to keep serving her dream, to keep believing in her ideals.

James Baldwin said:

“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.”

Show your love today Stacey. Show your love in the way you choose. But don’t stop loving America. Let this be your day of patriotism.

And whether it be patriotism shown like Tommie Smith and John Carlos did in the 1968 Olympics or like Susan B. Anthony did in this incredible speech, it is servants of America like you: the urban educator, the defiant voice, the one who challenges, who demands, who sheds tears for America’s unfinished business; it is patriots like you who will one day help make us ONE NATION, UNDER GOD, WITH LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL. May God bless you and May God Bless The United States of America. Thank you, Stacey.

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