I walked away from a Brunch gathering once. Got up from the table, paid my bill and never glanced back at the woman I left behind.
Which was odd as I am an extremely empathetic extrovert who generally goes out of her way to ensure friendly gatherings. This particular Brunch, however, had taken a decidedly unfriendly turn.
The three of us – myself, my friend, and her invited neighbor – had spent the better part of an hour and a half in polite and fairly innocuous conversations regarding our current states of singleness, our careers, and surface-level getting-to-know-you-type questions. We were wrapping up a relatively successful first meeting when the topic of “illegals” came up. The woman –the friend of my friend – said something regarding the “right way” to immigrate which became a conversation about immigration policy and refugees. When I asked her if our foreign policy had any bearing on the rising number of refugees, she replied with a nonsensical soup of a retort that sounded like this “If we drop bombs on people then I am ok with that. Because we need to do whatever it takes to keep this country great. Because I am a Patriot and I do the right thing when no one is looking.”
There was nothing logical or even worth debating in what she said –it’s the normal “patriotism means never criticizing and always agreeing with America” drivel. In fact, she didn’t say anything that I hadn’t heard or debated before, but I was still deeply irked. Maybe it was the smug look on her face when she said the bit about dropping bombs, or her accented English that revealed her own status as a once immigrant, or the fact that she finished by telling me that I was “very sensitive on the subject and maybe I would understand it more when I was older,” but I said my final piece and got up from that table and never looked back.
The conversation itself isn’t what I’ve been replaying in my head the past month though, it’s the emotional response that I had to it — that deeply unsettled feeling that has taken me a while to articulate. This brunch took place on the 4th of July and from rereading my writing that week, I suspect that it had much to do with my own feelings about that day. I said this on my FB page:
In 1776 America celebrated for the very first time her independence from the oppressive tyranny of Great Britain with these immortal words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Americans in all thirteen colonies barbecued, and had parties, and attempted to sleep through the celebratory cannon shots while carrying out their inalienable, Creator-given rights to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
Roughly 20% of the population at this time, however, was enslaved. And that night, instead of celebrating “freedom”, they dreamt of it and prayed for it and longed for a life outside of chains. Samuel Johnson succinctly nails the irony of American freedom with this quote: “How is it we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of the Negroes?”
240 years later this paradox of American “freedom” still exists. Only one day following our national celebration of Independence and the video of Alton Sterling being executed –being lynched—by agents of the state is making its rounds on social media.
But honestly, do you *really* need to watch that video? How many snuff films of black death does it take to convince you? How many black people begging for their lives do you need to hear to understand that “due process of the law” clauses of both the 5th and 14th amendments don’t seem to apply to *everybody*? How many lives of black fathers and mothers and sisters and brothers have to be taken before you realize that it’s the broken record of American history and its glaring paradox of freedom, repeating itself, over and over and over again?
American freedom has *always* coexisted with brutal oppression, discrimination, and inequality against black and brown people here in the US.
What I couldn’t articulate to that woman in the restaurant was this paradox of American “greatness” and “freedom”. If I had it to do all over again, I would tell her this about her jingoism masquerading as patriotism:
Here’s the difference between you and I: You love an image of America. You love an ideal of her –what she purports to be– a fairy tale you’ve been told repeatedly your entire life that isn’t real. Your version of America looks exactly like a Norman Rockwell painting and involves a country that has always (more than any other country) been “right” and lived up to the beautiful ideals codified in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
But what you love about America is a myth. That perfect, city on a hill with unwavering commitment to Democracy, an example for all other countries- America doesn’t exist. She never has. That’s why “Make America Great Again” rings false. It’s the “again” part that gets all of our attention. To which time period – as in which decade—was America so “Great” that we need to return to it again? Before 1865 with slavery? Reconstruction and lynching season? The 40’s during Jim Crow and Segregation or when we were interring Japanese Americans? The 50’s where black people were beaten in the streets for marching to obtain their rights as citizens? The 60’s where black people didn’t get the right to vote until 1964? 70’s/80’s with the war on drugs which was actually (and continues to be) a war against black and brown bodies? Every decade with extrajudicial killings? America has literally been the opposite of great for those of us who are not white. The truth of the matter is that America was never great for native and black people in this country and to return to any of those previous decades would be helacious for us.
Your love for America requires it to be The Greatest Country That Ever Existed and requires that America – and by extension Americans – be The Best and Most Democratic People on the FACE OF THE PLANET. And you are willing to blindly support any action taken by your country to bolster and maintain this image –this ideal– that you have of her. Your patriotism and love for America is conditional as it depends on a very sanitized and non-factual version of history. As G.K. Chesterton explains “Only those will permit their patriotism to falsify history whose patriotism depends on history.” Your love for America is much like the man who loves his wife with the stipulations of “don’t get fat” and “don’t nag me.” That’s not love.
The America that I love isn’t a place of magical wonder and mythology. It’s tierra firma with extremely flawed founding Fathers and a brutal history of racial oppression. It is a country that has failed throughout its history to live up to the very ideals that are so beautifully codified in its founding documents. It is a land that I all too frequently feel like an unwelcome guest in, but it is the land that I love all the same.
I love America knowing that she has blood on her hands and murder in her heart. I love her knowing all to well the lingering effects of her history. I love this land because it is mine– my patria, my homeland. But my love for America doesn’t need to look the other way. It doesn’t need to smooth over the “rough spots” in her history to satisfy a false narrative of greatness. Pointing out the gaps between our ideals and reality doesn’t make my love less or make me unpatriotic.
Because I know that we can do better. We can be better. We can actually live up to our idealism. We can actually *be* a country where every citizen has equal protection under the law and equal opportunity for success. But that will never happen as long as we keep pretending that “patriotism” equals unquestioning loyalty and historical ignorance. And so I’ll keep questioning and writing and prodding until we so that we close the gap. I’ll do like all those other black Americans before me who, as noted by Ralph Ellison, “puts pressure upon the nation to live up to its ideals.”