Celebrating the full narrative of America

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
Langston Hughes

As a child I was never conflicted about July 4th. Independence Day celebrations were a marker of freedom from school, an opportunity for grilling food over an open flame, and my one annual chance to see fireworks in the school field near my home. But like many African Americans my relationship to this holiday became more complicated as I learned about the histories of human enslavement, suffering, and inequality that are woven so tightly into the American fabric.

As a student I read Frederick Douglass’ 1852 address asking, “What to the slave is the 4th of July?” Douglass speaks with great love for and pride in a nation founded on principles of freedom, sovereignty of the people, and the fallibility of the state. But he also reminds us that celebrating America requires us to tell the whole story— “Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.”

The mournful wail of millions still resounds across the American landscape.

During the 2008 presidential campaign Michelle Obama reflected on America’s enthusiastic response to her husband’s candidacy and remarked that for the first time in her adult life she felt proud of her country. Many white Americans were baffled and offended by her comments. After all Michelle Obama is a graduate of both Princeton University and Harvard Law School, she held a high-paying job, educates her children at private schools, and, at that time, was married to a black man with a real shot of being President. With all her apparent opportunities and accomplishments, why wouldn’t Michelle Obama have long been a flag-waving patriot?

But I, like many African Americans, fully understood Michelle Obama’s statement. We heard the complex and deep love for her nation that her sentiment reflected.

In November Americans shattered a substantial barrier. We elected the first African American President of the United States. Coming together in an enormous multiracial coalition of Americans young and old, gay and straight, urban and rural, male and female, we reaffirmed candidate Barack Obama’s insight: “in the unlikely story that is America there has never been anything false about hope.”

Whatever the outcome of his presidency, the victory itself was a meaningful step in America’s racial history. It would be so easy to join in the jubilee shout. But even though my President is black, my spirit is still blue.

The mournful wail of millions still resounds across the American landscape.

In the United States today the median wealth of even modest white families is ten times that of black families and twelve times that of Hispanic families. People with disabilities are routinely denied housing and employment even though the law is supposed to protect against such violations.

In the United States today there are women forced to give birth handcuffed to jail beds and their only crime is working long hours for little pay without official documentation. In states across our country lesbian and gay individuals can be fired, denied housing, and lose custody of their children with impunity simply because of their identity.

The mournful wail of millions still resounds across the American landscape.

This 4th of July weekend I temporarily relocated to New Orleans, Louisiana where I will live, work, and write this summer. Even though I was raised in the South, the long road trip through the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana evokes difficult emotions.

Driving south the tea grows sweeter but the history more bitter. Southern trees bore strange fruit; rebel flags on trucks and state houses alike are still bloody with settled debts. Just a few short years ago we watched New Orleans drown and we still have not kept our collective promise to fully and fairly restore this unique American city. It is not only the South that bears America’s racial scar. Cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and Detroit share vicious histories of violence and of contemporary inequality.

The mournful wail of millions still resounds across the American landscape.

The story of our country is an amazing narrative of great young men so inspired by an age of ideas that they threw off the yoke of colonialism and founded a free nation. But the land on which they formed this union was stolen, the hands with which they built this nation were enslaved, and the women who birthed its citizens were second-class.

And all of this is our story. Each of us participates in all parts of the narrative, as both oppressor and oppressed. This is the imperfect fabric of our nation. At times we have torn and stained it. At other moments we mend and repair it. But it is ours. The imperialism, the genocide, the slavery, but also the liberation, the hope, and the deeply American belief that our best days still lie in front of us.

This year I will wave a flag without a hint of irony, not because I have forgotten my nation’s many wrongs, but because I remember them. I am proud of my country, not for its perfection, but because my story is uniquely written here, in this place as in no other. I will celebrate because the alternative is too grim. The alternative is to give up on the dream of a nation founded in the belief that all are created equal.

The mournful wail of millions still resounds across the American landscape.

We cannot drown out these voices with patriotic jubilation; instead the work of American patriotism is to respond.