The Challenge of Black Patriotism

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The month after the surprise December 1941 military strike that left the Pearl Harbor naval station smoldering and Americans filled with anger and patriotic fervor, a letter to the editor arrived at The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation’s most-circulated Black weekly newspapers. Its author was James G. Thompson, a 26-year-old cafeteria worker at a factory in Wichita, Kan., that manufactured aircraft for the military.

“Like all true Americans,” Thompson wrote, “my greatest desire at this time, this crucial point of our history, is a desire for a complete victory over the forces of evil, which threaten our existence today.” But Thompson, pointing out the hypocrisy of the United States’ expecting its Black citizens to help defeat tyranny abroad while being subjected to racism at home, also posed a question: “Should I sacrifice my life to live half American?”

Thompson continued, “I suggest that while we keep defense and victory in the forefront, that we don’t lose sight of our fight for democracy at home.” Building off the popular “V for victory” hand gesture of the day, he proposed that Black Americans initiate a “Double V” campaign for double victory: “The first V for victory over our enemies from without, the second V for victory over our enemies from within.”

The campaign proposed by Thompson — who would be drafted the following year — took off with Black Americans across the country. Each week, The Courier ran photos documenting its popularity: Black school children posing with the index and middle fingers on each hand in a V; a Black soldier forming the sign with flags on a military base; a recurring feature spotlighting Black women’s beauty playfully titled the “Double V Girl of the Week.” The campaign’s logo featured a bald eagle with wings spread over a blazing sun. It also featured a Double Victory pennant and a proclamation for “Democracy: At Home — Abroad.”

In less than a generation, the Double V’s origins would be largely forgotten; the two-handed gesture is now probably most closely associated with Richard Nixon, a president whose campaign’s so-called Southern strategy, designed to appeal to white conservatives disgruntled with the civil rights movement, accelerated Black Americans’ estrangement from the Republican Party. This national amnesia suggests how difficult it is to square the patriotism of Thompson with the dominant conception of patriotism in the United States, what could be called blind patriotism: a kind of quasi-religious national reverence discomfited by the idea that a love for country entails holding it to its own standards.

“I love America more than any other country in the world,” James Baldwin wrote in “Notes of a Native Son,” “and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Or, as Thompson concluded in his letter to The Courier, “I love America and am willing to die for the America I know will someday become a reality.” This is the crux of Black patriotism, an expression of national praise and chastening drawn from the same well. It cannot know only uncritical adoration because history and lived experience remind us the nation has often been too cruel, and it cannot be only sharp tongues and elbows because our work and faith have had a hand in America’s existence and evolution.

Because the patriotism that is intolerant of criticism is increasingly the province of Donald Trump’s Republican Party, while practitioners of Black patriotism are mostly bunched in the Democratic Party, the complicated nature of Black patriots’ civic pride is inevitably an object of partisan suspicion. When Colin Kaepernick, at the time the San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback, refused to stand for the national anthem in 2016, it didn’t matter that he adjusted his method of protest from sitting to kneeling after being advised to do so by a military veteran, or that he explicitly declared after the game: “I’m not anti-American. I love America.” He was labeled a “son of a bitch” by President Trump and unceremoniously ushered out of professional football; angry fans played the national anthem as they burned their Kaepernick jerseys.

It is hard to think of a year in recent memory in which the unreconcilability of Black patriotism with the other kind has been as central to the American story as it has been this year. In the spring and summer, after the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, protests against racial injustice and inequality, led by Black Americans, occurred in every state. The differing versions of patriotism found their avatars in the clashes between militarized police forces and peaceful protesters. Since then, Trump’s enormous deficit among Black voters and his refusal to acknowledge a loss that was delivered to him largely by those voters exercising their franchise — perhaps the most elemental expression of Black patriotism — has extended this conflict. The bloc’s overwhelming support for Democrats and its high turnout this year, with Kamala Harris’s historic candidacy for the vice presidency on the ballot, have been portrayed by the president and his circle as a subversion of the democratic process, subjected to baseless accusations of fraud. The state, which had charged them with ungratefulness in protest, is now seeking ways to reject the group’s fidelity to the foundation of democracy.

During the first presidential debate, Trump encouraged his supporters to act as poll watchers during early voting at satellite sites in Philadelphia — an illegal activity, as Pennsylvania law permits observers only on Election Day — and charged that voter fraud was occurring because “bad things happen in Philadelphia,” a city where Black Americans are the plurality. His campaign declared there were voting irregularities in Wisconsin, and the Republican State Assembly speaker there tied the claim to Milwaukee, where nearly two-thirds of the state’s Black population resides. At a postelection rally in Michigan four years ago, President Trump thanked Black voters for helping him win these battleground states by voluntarily sitting out the election; this time around his lawyers looked to forcibly remove these voters from final counts to improve his chances of holding onto the White House.

In Atlanta, Black voters, some of whom waited more than 10 hours just to cast a ballot, turned out at high levels and in extremely lopsided fashion in favor of Democratic candidates, leading Trump and the state’s Republican senatorial candidates to cry voter fraud. The president at first took to social media to falsely claim he had won Michigan, then declared there was voter fraud in Detroit, a city where Black Americans are more than three-quarters of the population, after it became clear that he was losing. But residents were hip to the planned attempt to have their votes challenged. “The Black vote in Detroit is higher than it’s ever been,” the Rev. Steve Bland Jr. of Liberty Temple Baptist Church in Detroit told a TV reporter, “and we will determine the outcome, because we’ve gone from picking cotton to picking presidents.”

In August 1777, a year after the United States declared its independence, a Black man named Jehu Grant escaped enslavement in Rhode Island to join the Continental Army to serve in the Revolutionary War. He made his way to Danbury, Conn., where he was put to work in a unit responsible for managing supply wagons and the animals that hauled them. Ten months into his military service, the man who had enslaved Grant showed up at his outpost and ordered his return, a demand to which the Army readily acceded. Grant was returned to slavery.

When a law was passed in 1832 to provide pensions to those who served in the Revolutionary War, Grant — by now free but also elderly, blind and penniless — applied and had to wait two years for the heartbreaking response from the federal government: His petition was denied, because his “services while a fugitive from [his] master’s service” were “not embraced.” Writing to appeal the decision, he acknowledged breaking the law to fight for the nation’s independence in hopes he would realize his own, but he said he simply couldn’t resist “the songs of liberty that saluted my ear, thrilled through my heart.”

Grant’s experience suggests why a unique Black patriotism has always been necessary. Its formation was demanded by the historical exclusion of Black Americans from more traditional conceptions of patriotism, even when they went to lengths as extraordinary as Grant’s to practice it. During the eras of slavery and Jim Crow, the nation wasted little effort in reminding Black Americans that this country was not theirs; that they could not earn inclusion through service, assimilation or respectability.

One of the most popular songs in America in 1901 was “Every Race Has a Flag but the Coon,” written by a pair of white Tin Pan Alley songwriters working in the era’s exceptionally racist genre of music known as the “coon song.” The song made explicit the link between race and national identity. The Stars and Stripes belonged to whites; for Black Americans, the song proposed a banner of social and moral depravity decorated with a possum gnawing a pork chop and a chicken with poker dice for eyes over a banjo and a slip to play the numbers.

Little wonder, then, that for a people who loved a nation that did not love them back, a new brand of patriotism was required — expansive enough for anger and questioning of the nation as well as adoration and respect. Political psychologists refer to this as constructive patriotism, and have found that it leads to increased civic participation, at times in demonstration of dissatisfaction with the country and at times in reclamation of its principles.

The early 20th century had an explosion of Black civic engagement. Civil rights organizations like the N.A.A.C.P. sprang to life; Black churches became even more central to political and social power; cultural movements like the Harlem Renaissance injected intellectual and artistic challenges to racism in America. Black military service members distinguished themselves in war, and brave Black citizens across the South and destinations of the Great Migration organized to challenge racism in their communities. In a 2017 journal article, the University of South Florida sociologist Micah E. Johnson suggests this conscious patriotism remains a common orientation in Black America, being “equally connected to both America as a homeland and the realities of Black oppression in America.”

The fact that Black patriotism is practiced by a bloc that has, for almost six decades, given an average of nearly 90 percent of its votes to Democratic presidential candidates renders it immediately suspect to the right, but has also magnified its influence on the left; it informs Democratic politicians’ increasing willingness to point out how structural racism shapes the nation. But a forthcoming study from More in Common, an organization that explores political polarization in advanced democracies, suggests that its relationship to partisanship is more complicated than this polarization suggests. The report to be released later this month, titled “American Fabric: Finding Our Shared Identity,” contains the results of a 4,000-person survey and finds the real gap in patriotism is not among the races but between political ideologies. For example, there was very little differentiation among Black, white and Hispanic Americans when respondents were asked if they were proud to be American, if they were grateful to be American and if being American was important to their identity.

Answers vary much more by ideology, with the most liberal and conservative groups identified in the survey diverging by 66, 43 and 53 percentage points, respectively, on those questions. When slavery, Jim Crow and segregation were raised, only 4 percent of the most conservative respondents thought it was necessary to acknowledge those wrongs, compared with 98 percent of the most liberal respondents. Over all, the study finds that conservatives tend to define America by its perceived strengths and that progressives tend to emphasize its perceived weaknesses.

Black Americans, of course, do both. Black patriotism does not hold that America is irredeemably racist — it asks if America is interested in redemption. It is forward-looking and informed by history, meshing optimism about the nation’s prospects with a realism about its struggles with racial equality. And it is rooted in the task of helping the nation reconcile “Black” with “American.” As Joe Biden put it last month in a speech at Gettysburg that nodded at the promise of America without shying away from its troubles: “I think about what it takes for a Black person to love America. That is a deep love for this country.”

The speech made me think of an image from my childhood, an old photograph that hung on the wall of my grandparents’ farmhouse in rural Georgia. It was a black-and-white portrait of my grandmother’s sharecropping father, Joe Humphrey, whom the family called Daddy Joe. In the photograph he is dressed in a white shirt beneath a canvas jacket, standing with his hands in his pockets, the cuffs of his trousers stuffed into unlaced work boots, and a pipe seated neatly in the corner of his mouth. American flags are angled over each shoulder as if they were wings.

My great-grandfather lived long enough to see the Supreme Court find school segregation unconstitutional (in Brown v. Board of Education) and President Johnson sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but not long enough to vote in a presidential election or see any of his grandchildren attend a desegregated school. My family isn’t exactly sure of the date, but suspects the photograph was taken at some point between when Black activism led to the desegregation of the military in 1948 and the Brown ruling in 1954. In other words, it is a portrait of a Black man in Jim Crow’s United States. And what stands out is how patriotism and defiance are commingled: a glint in his eyes, a daring smirk.

I have been thinking of this image alongside another more recent, and much more famous, photograph: a picture of a woman named Ieshia Evans, taken by a freelance photographer for Reuters after she silently stepped into a street in Baton Rouge during a July 2016 Black Lives Matter protest and was confronted by armored police officers for refusing to comply with their directive to remain off the road. The photograph captures the moment the officers descended on Evans, a nurse and mother from Pennsylvania, her billowing sundress and slightly extended arm transforming her into a calm yet unyielding Lady Justice under siege by the state. Across decades of time and worlds away, the two photos record the seemingly paradoxical but in fact harmonious nature of Black patriotism — devotion and dissent together, bound up in a people who, against all odds, have found a way unite the two.

Delivering an address to a Boston audience in 1865, Frederick Douglass accused the United States of considering Black people to be Americans only when their bodies and braveries were needed for war, not when the nation betrayed their loyalty by allowing their oppression. “In time of trouble we are citizens,” Douglass told the gathering, as the Civil War neared its conclusion. “Shall we be citizens in war, and aliens in peace? Would that be just?”

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