On being Black and patriotic: A Memorial Day takeaway

This photo, taken in April 1865, shows the graves of Union soldiers who died at a racetrack prison camp in Charleston, S.C. Their bodies were initially buried in a mass grave, but were later reinterred by newly freed slaves. A daylong memorial attended by 10,000 people -- black and white -- is believed to be the first Memorial Day. [Photo by George N. Barnard, Library of Congress]

This photo, taken in April 1865, shows the graves of Union soldiers who died at a racetrack prison camp in Charleston, S.C. Their bodies were initially buried in a mass grave, but were later reinterred by newly freed slaves. A daylong memorial attended by 10,000 people -- black and white -- is believed to be the first Memorial Day. [Photo by George N. Barnard, Library of Congress]

“One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body…”

— W.E.B. DuBois

Until this past weekend I never really thought about any special connection between African Americans and Memorial Day.

Certainly, there are people touched deeply by the tragic loss of a loved one in war. But, apart from that direct relationship, there seemed to me little reason for Black people to join the mass outpouring of patriotism in a country that, for so long, had excluded them from the rights and privileges of full citizenship.

A thorny matter. One that is little understood by people outside the family. Outside the experience. The experience of feeling outside. Of being outside, if only because of that feeling.

This holiday, though, I came to appreciate an alternative meaning of African American patriotism. One I believe goes deeper than symbolic summer expression and “love-it-or-leave-it” loyalty tests. One that gets at the heart of American ideals, and pledges allegiance to them even in dissent.

This rethinking started with my mother. She had found a flag in a trunk. It had belonged to her stepfather, a veteran in downstate Danville, a member of that town’s (can you spell “Jim Crow”?) Black VFW.

She wanted me to check the flag. Give it a once-over. Okay, fine. Make sure it was not stained, torn or worn. Um, ookaaay, fine. So she could fly it on the front porch. Wait. What? When did this start? This flag waving. My mom? The one who taught me about race discrimination? The one who had formed a cynical view based her own struggles to overcome it?

Flying the colors was only the beginning. “I stand and face the East,” she told me. “I say a prayer for the people who went to war and died senselessly.”

Really? And the people who died here — at home — fighting for the rights those wars were supposed to protect. What about them? Well, she prays for them, too, the Civil Rights martyrs who suffered “atrocities,” she told me. “I think it’s terrible. People getting killed when they did nothing wrong.” Nothing, except trying to right the wrongs, expressing a sense of patriotism. Loyalty to something higher than nationalism.

As my mother showed with her Memorial Day appreciation — the ultimate sacrifices here and abroad — patriotism for African Americans is something that still is complicated by what W.E.B. DuBois called the “double consciousness,” that inside-out perspective of being American and Black, of believing in the principles of freedom, justice and equality, even when they were tantalizingly out of reach. “They still press on, they still nurse the dogged hope … of a higher synthesis of civilization and humanity, a true progress …” DuBois wrote in the August 1897 essay “Strivings of the Negro People,” his first of many published in The Atlantic, and later included in his seminal book “The Souls of Black Folk.”

Patriotism for the formerly enslaved and descendants was a religion of sorts. A belief in the unseen, the unproven, the possibility. “Tomorrow; I’ll be at the table; when company comes… I, too, am America,” Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes later proclaimed.

Patriotism also is the belief that becomes determination to make that possibility real. Starting with challenges, honest critique of failures. The failures of evenhanded American justice. The failures of equal opportunity. The failures of unbiased transformative education.

Dissent is fundamental to our democratic system. The late Howard Zinn certainly believed that. He advocated patriotism “not as blind obedience to government, nor as submissive worship to flags and anthems, but rather…as loyalty to the principles of justice and democracy.” True believers dare to criticize because they believe so strongly. Because they are committed to realizing the just society they envision.

Clearly, DuBois held that view. So did Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In a way, it was embedded in Michelle Obama’s gush of pride following then Senator Barack Obama’s historic January 3, 2008 Iowa Caucuses win.

She told crowds in Wisconsin that February that “for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country.” Some of us got it. Some of us didn’t. Conservative pundits questioned her patriotism in the new coded language of “othering.”

Ironic. Patriotism used now to divide as much as unite. Enforcing difference. Empowering the traditionally privileged to decide who is included. Punctuating in the minds of the traditionally marginalized exactly what Michelle Obama went on to say: “…I have been desperate to see our country moving in that direction and just not feeling so alone in my frustration and disappointment…” By “that direction,” she meant a more fair, just and unified society with room for everyone.

Patriotism. A belief in the possibility.

It is a belief that drove hundreds of young people to Mississippi 50 years ago to organize the disenfranchised during “Freedom Summer.” And to sacrifice.

It is a belief that helped the formerly enslaved, the disenfranchised, to endure a reign of terror under American Apartheid in the South. Reflecting on all that helped to shape a new attitude for me this past Memorial Day, finally taking a moment at my mother’s urging to face East. By way of PBS. “The American Experience” documentary “Death and the Civil War” that night included a segment about the Black population in Charleston, South Carolina that came together to re-inter the remains of the 200 plus Union soldiers who had perished as prisoners of war, and then were abandoned by fleeing Confederates. Yale University history professor David W. Blight tells how these newly freed citizens refurbished the local race track as a cemetery with arched entrance and painted inscription, “Martyrs of the Racecourse.” They organized a parade of a reported 10,000 people — Black and White together — singing spirituals, reading scriptures, then, moving onto the infield for a picnic.

Several cities lay claim to hosting the first Memorial Day celebration. This one arguably was the first. It certainly is the one that makes me proud of my country.

Christopher Benson is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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