IN CALLING President-elect Barack Obama a "house Negro," Al Qaeda missed the memo from Grant Park. Before Obama's victory speech in Chicago, the crowd of 125,000 people said the Pledge of Allegiance. In my 53 years I have never heard such a multicultural throng recite the pledge with such determined enunciation, expelling it from the heart in a treble soaring to the skies and a bass drumming through the soil to vibrate my feet. The treble and bass met in my spine, where "liberty and justice for all" evoked neither clank of chains nor cackle of cruelty, but a warm tickle of Jeffersonian slave-owning irony: Justice cannot sleep forever.
Derrick Jackson's Boston Globe column yesterday so begins. It, like this diary, is entitled 'It's OK to be an American now', and before the words I quote you see a picture of Obama in shirtsleeves before a large American flag.
I want to explore the column and the nature of patriotic feeling. I invite you to keep reading.
Some of you may have already read the column. I referred people to it in yesterday's Abbreviated Pundit Round-up. If not, perhaps you will take a moment or two to read Jackson's offering. You will read of spontaneous expressions of patriotism, through the Pledge and the Star Spangled Banner, in places like "notoriously liberal Madison, Wis., and the People's Republic of Cambridge." And you will read of the changing attitudes towards patriotism by African-Americans, rising according to a study from 60% just before the election to 72% just after. University of Washington political scientist Christopher Parker, who did the study, told Jackson of his own participation in the anthem at a football game:
I've often had a hard time saying the words. But as I watched the flag being unfurled, time kind of slowed down. I thought of the race speech (by Obama), the Democratic National Convention, and the crowd in Denver. I thought about him at Grant Park. I felt free to be proud, free not to be angry. I can actually say the words. I'm thinking, 'Oh, I guess it's OK to be an American now.' "
Jackson notes that
This was a long way from 1887 when Frederick Douglass said, "I have no patriotism" for a nation that does "not recognize me as a man."
Let me leave Jackson's column to explore a bit. not recognize me as a man Those words by Douglass could have been said, perhaps in a slightly different format, by many Americans. Perhaps we should change "man" to "person" because for too long - perhaps still in some cases - that applied to half our population, because women were not granted full political rights, and in far too many cases are still denied economic rights. Those who are gay or transgendered are still denied many rights, including that of openly serving in our military, a most meaningful action one could take to demonstrate one's love of country, a willingness to die on its behalf. We often complain about the lack of civic involvement of our young people, but as we learned yet again this cycle when they want to participate far too many are willing to put obstacles in their path, attempting to prevent them from registering or voting. And one can argue that the single most patriotic action one can take is to vote, for when one does one implicitly agrees to be bound by the results of that election, whereas one who does not can legitimately say that s/he did not participate, had no part in the process, and therefore does not feel constrained by the results. If that non-participation is laziness or from disinterest, perhaps we can argue such slackers are still bound because of the benefits they receive and the opportunity that was open to them. But when we deny participation, put up obstacles, tell people they are too stupid so that their votes in an unnecessarily complicated process should not count, we are also telling them they are not part of our political process.
Michelle Obama was heavily criticized for words she offered during the primary, that for the first time she was really proud of her country. I do not think one has to be African-American to have experienced some of the feelings that lay behind her words. Symbolic "firsts" matter psychologically, and not just to those whose subgroup achieves them. They are a demonstration of growth in our society.
I was born in 1946. In my life, some states did not allow women to serve on juries. Legal restrictions on attending public universities existed both on the basis of gender and of race. In the case of gender, that included our national service academies. Universities paid for by the taxes of all were in some cases open to less than half. The nation had looked the other way while law and custom were used to keep people of color in inferior positions, out of jobs and neighborhoods, and not just in the states of the former Confederacy.
I do not recite the Pledge nor sing the national anthem. I ceased doing both while I was in school. And yet, despite opposing the war in Vietnam, I enlisted in the Marines when I was 19, in 1965. I pay my taxes, am willing to serve on juries, vote, participate politically, and have for more than a decade devoted myself to educating young people to empower them to civic participation by teaching in public schools. I would argue that my continued participation in teaching and politics is an indication of my love of country.
Some would not agree, because at times I am highly critical of what I observe. They would be outraged that I teach my students to look at the failure of our nation to live up to its ideals, historically and in our own times. They might say I am undercutting the patriotism of my students. I would argue I am connecting them in a way that can only lead to their loving their country more, because they feel it connects with them, values their existence, is open to their participation.
I do not say the Pledge because for me the words are skewed. I am committed to the Republic, created by the Constitution. It is to that which I give my loyalty. I do not disrespect the Flag. One treasured possession was a gift from my first year of teaching Government, 1998-99, when the parents of one of my students as a thank you arranged to get from the office of Senator Paul Sarbanes a flag that had flown over the Capitol. It is too large to hang in my temporary building classroom, but I regularly take it out to share with my students.
I do not sing the anthem because I find the music close to unsingable, and the words more than a little silly. And while I recognize the need for military fervor (I did, after all, volunteer), I am cautious about glorification of military and war for their own sake. Still, I do sing "America the Beautiful" and other patriotic songs, I enjoy fireworks, and am grateful for those willing to go into harm's way so that we can enjoy the freedoms we do.
And yet, and yet . . . for too long too many did not feel as connected. Perhaps some women may be frustrated that Clinton did not achieve what Obama now has. They, too, have aspirations. To them I might note that right now there are more than a dozen women in the U. S. Senate but with Obama's resignation no Blacks. There are no Native-Americans. There are few Hispanics. Despite that, many of all shades and genders and sexual orientation experienced that moment at 11 PM Eastern Time on November 4 as something significant, not only for those whose skin is like that of Obama, but for all of us.
I have two great-nieces who, like Obama, are half-white and half-black, the children of my sister's son and his wonderful African-American wife. I have a niece who is a registered member of a Native American tribe because her father is fully of the First Peoples. And I look out each day at my 180+ students, who are black, white, Asian, Hispanic, mixed, . . . and no longer see them as parts of groups whose prospect may be limited by their skin or ethnicity, but now are fully represented in the leadership of the nation we all WANT to love.
Jackson writes that the patriotism of African-Americans has often been different that of whites:
If it had been up to African-Americans, we would not have invaded Iraq under false pretenses in 2003, costing the lives of 4,200 American soldiers of all colors. That opposition was in the spirit of author James Baldwin, who said in 1955, "I love America more than any other country in the world, and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."
I, too, love America more than any other nation. And while not a global expert, I have traveled, to Canada and Mexico, and to numerous nations in Europe. For all our flaws, the possibilities open to me here, the grandson of immigrant Jews, are greater than in any other nation. I want those opportunities even greater, and open to all who come here, who aspire to better lives for them and their progeny.
The occasion of Jackson's column was the Al Qaeda tape intended to be dismissive of Obama. Jackson points out how off-base that tape is. He also talks about the optimism that has exploded in this nation, that when he wears his scout uniform he finds agreement about hopes for young people in discussions with those politically conservative. He reminds us that Malcolm X came to support voter registration in the South, quoting remarks from shortly before that man's death:
You and I will not get anywhere by standing on the sidelines . . . let's get involved all the way."
let's get involved all the way - is not that what we saw from so many, and not just in the Black community? Is that not at least partly why public opinion has shown dramatic change even since the election, in the hopes and trust people are placing in Obama, and in the possibilities for change, even as people realize how difficult are the economic and political conditions in which we now find ourselves?
it's OK to be an American now In a sense, one could criticize those words. It should ALWAYS be okay to be an American. One should not have to be ashamed of one's nation when traveling overseas, but many have rightly felt that way in recent years as we saw our political leadership abandon and even deliberately undermine the principles for which this nation should stand. Those of us at home found ourselves effectively accused of being traitors for questioning the actions of those in charge. Then it seemed as if it were not okay to be an American.
Those of us who lived through the turmoil of the Civil Rights era and of Vietnam saw the flaws of our nation. Many of us sought to alleviate the pains, to correct the failings. Some feared change. Others sought to use that fear in ways that further damaged the country. That applies to those who encouraged violence whether to suppress dissent and protest or to undermine the government and the polity. Too many withdrew and focused on their immediate needs and desires. Others began to participate, but mainly to resist changes that they feared. And our nation suffered.
We need to heal. That is incumbent upon us all. Such healing can only come through participation. That participation requires a commitment to something beyond ourselves, our immediate wants and perceived needs. It requires political participation. It requires a meaningful commitment. That is one important expression of love of country, commonly called patriotism.
Let me end as does Jackson, with hope but also with caution. The context from which he writes is the huge crowd in Grant Park, on November 4, 2008:
The multicultural throng showed what happened when you get involved all the way. Malcolm once said, "You're not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can't face reality." On election night, an America confronted with very serious realities took the blinders off patriotism. May it not go back to sleep.