I wasn’t born when the Brown v. Board of Education ruling was handed down, so I don’t know what it was like for those Black Americans who heard it or read it and realized what the court had done. But I think I have an idea, based on what I felt yesterday after reading the decision.
I know it was a state supreme court decision, and one that doesn’t apply to me all the way over here on the other side of the country. But yesterday, reading the decision, I felt a little bit more like an American. And maybe even just a little proud of my country.
This is something I meant to write at the time, but that occurred to me yesterday, as I was walking home. Reading the CA Supremes ruling yesterday, and thinking about my own feelings, I thought about Michelle Obama’s comments about finally being proud of America. I understood what she meant even then, but more-so after yesterday’s ruling.
Yesterday, I finally felt just a little proud to be an American. Finally.
To understand where someone like Michelle Obama is coming from — or yours truly, for that matter — you have to look a America through the prism of someone without the privileges upon which it was founded from the beginning; from the perspective of people for whom the promises of being an American in America have been historically held out of reach.
From that perspective, pride in America is based more on its strides towards what it could become — were it to live up to all it promises to be on paper, for all its citizens — what it is or where it is at the present moment. America is something different for, say, Cindy McCain than is is for Michelle Obama, or than it is for me.
In some ways, we’re proud of an America that has yet to be, and that we hope will be someday. Langston Huges probably said it best.
Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. Let it be the pioneer on the plain Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed– Let it be that great strong land of love Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, But opportunity is real, and life is free, Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
…O, let America be America again– The land that never has been yet– And yet must be–the land where every man is free. The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME– Who made America, Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain, Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose– The steel of freedom does not stain. From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives, We must take back our land again, America!
O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath– America will be!
People who point to Michelle Obama’s privileged lifestyle forget that whether her current lifestyle was always her lifestyle, she grew up a black child and became a black woman in the America that was and is, not the America that will be. (Perhaps it’s safer to say the America that can be.) She has almost surely seen much to make one less than proud. And, as I remember the pictures of her reunion with her South Carolina relatives — having grown up in the south myself — I know she must have relatives who have witnessed much that wouldn’t inspire pride, and she’s listened to their stories.
From her perspective, how much hope must be inspired by the reality that her husband is the first black (or brown) man to have a real shot at becoming president? How much hope that wasn’t there before? How much hope that was nursed, unfulfilled for generations, until this moment? How much hope, nursed on an abiding faith that American can be — will be — all it has promised to be, someday?
I was a high school student when the Bowers v. Hardwick decision came down. As a gay person, I felt divorced from the constitution and my country. It wasn’t until Lawrence v. Texas that anything changed for me, and by then I’d seen and heard much that didn’t inspire pride. But something shifted a little yesterday, and now I have a “wait-and-see” attitude.
Peggy Noonan recently asked “Who would have taught Barrack Obama to love his country?” My experience is that plenty of people will tell you that you should love your country, and will speak at length about why. But depending on who you are, you may learn to love your country, but experience will have taught you to sometimes love it — and hold it — at arms’ length.
If I feel pride, it’s not the same as might be expected, but closer to what Booman said.
Where did I learn to love my country? Who taught me to love it? What did I find loveable? I’m not even sure of the answer, although my parents and my teachers and the programs I watched on television and the books I chose to read all played a part. I learned to love the Constitution of the United States. I learned to respect and admire the Founding Fathers of this country, despite all their flaws. I came to understand that our Republic was something new and fragile, and that it needed protection from both within and without. And I, of course, learned to love the area that I grew up in, and all the wonderful national parks around the country that I visited during summer vacations as a child. And I loved baseball and football, and mint chocolate chip ice cream. In other words, I learned to love my country the same way that Barack Obama learned to love it…by growing up here and learning a little history.
…I’ll tell you another thing. I don’t normally get my pride and my love off of the accomplishments of others. I do have pride and love for our Constitution and our system of governance, but my love of country has nothing to do with the gold miners that forced the Native Americans off their land in violation of treaties, nor with the Nazi-sympathizer Henry Ford, nor even with the enterprising Wright Brothers. I’m all for clean-running trains, planes, and automobiles, but I don’t love my country because of them. I wouldn’t die for my country to preserve the internal combustion engine. I’d die to preserve the Constitution. And by Constitution, I do not mean the Estate Tax, Peggy. Or whatever other supply-side economic policy you think made it possible for Americans to figure out air travel.
Yesterday, I heard a whisper of an America that never was to me, and that I hope will be. Inspired now, I will work harder to make it so.