On Independence Day, Black Americans see hope of a larger patriotism

Why We Wrote This

Independence Day stirs a deep love of country. This year, it’s also stirring the hope that this love can more fully embrace the Black American experience.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Protesters hold high an American flag as they demonstrate June 5, 2020, near the White House in Washington, over the death of George Floyd. For many Black Americans, patriotism includes a struggle to reconcile love of country with the personal pain of racial prejudice.

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The killing of George Floyd has set off protests and unrest across the United States. But as Independence Day approaches, Micah Johnson says the broad outpouring of support has also done something else. It has, to a small but important degree, reduced the tension many feel being both Black and American.

Dr. Johnson, a mental health expert, has studied the phenomenon he calls a “double consciousness.” It is the struggle to reconcile a love of country with a history of racial prejudice.

There’s a “psychological strain of being Black and also being loyal to your country, loving your country when that love for that country and that idea of patriotism is predicated upon your hurt not existing, or silencing your hurt,” he says.

But the mounting desire of significantly more Americans to be receptive to the Black experience can begin to ease that tension. Bryon Garner, who served in the military and has a brother who is a police officer, says “patriotism means a lot to us in the sense that we do love our country.” Often, it feels being patriotic “means you’re being less Black.”

Bryon Garner and his wife were sitting by the beach in Martha’s Vineyard when a pickup truck filled with white teenagers rolled by, flying an enormous American flag. To the Navy veteran, the display did not evoke feelings of pride; it felt menacing. “It didn’t seem friendly.”

For Mr. Garner, the moment was a reminder of what, for many Black Americans, is an uncomfortably familiar fact: Being patriotic can mean having a double consciousness.

“From the very beginning, there has been Black blood on the battlefields for this nation,” says Mr. Garner, a contract specialist for the Defense Logistics Agency and a Ph.D. student researching what it means to be Black and patriotic in 21st-century America. “Yet when we come home, the country still does not live up to the truest part of its values.”

Every year on Independence Day, Americans of all backgrounds rally around shared ideals, surrounded by star-spangled bunting, fireworks, and flag-themed food and clothing. But for many Black Americans, the symbolism of the flag includes a struggle to reconcile love of country with the personal pain of the nation’s long history of racial prejudice.

This Independence Day, there is a glimmer of what could be, as protests for racial justice draw Americans of all races in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police. But those cherished ideals also underline the distance that remains for America to genuinely embrace and celebrate the experience of its Black citizens.

There’s a “psychological strain of being Black and also being loyal to your country, loving your country when that love for that country and that idea of patriotism is predicated upon your hurt not existing, or silencing your hurt,” says Micah Johnson, an assistant professor of mental health law and policy at the University of South Florida in Tampa. 

“How, then, do I become a whole person, when I love this country but that country doesn’t always love me back?” asks Dr. Johnson, who regularly trains organizations in anti-racism and wrote a 2017 study, “The Paradox of Black Patriotism: Double Consciousness.”

After the death of Mr. Floyd, there has been a shift, and the world now seems able to “pay attention and learn more about this double consciousness that exists in the Black community,” says Dr. Johnson.

A nation of neighbors

Sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois first described Black double consciousness in the late 1800s as the duality that comes from “looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” During the past century, social progress has helped to alleviate the strain between being Black and being patriotic somewhat, but further progress comes down to caring more about Black people as friends and neighbors, says Dr. Johnson.

“People are now more receptive to the Black experience. They are more interested in knowing more about these struggles. They’re invested more. With that, there’s less tension ... between these two identities,” he says.

In many ways, both the American flag and what it represents have been a work in progress – changing as America has changed. During the Civil War, both anti-slavery and pro-slavery coalitions rallied beneath it. In 1963, as part of a boycott against merchants in Jackson, Mississippi, 600 Black schoolchildren carried American flags as symbols of protest before they were arrested. 

The American flag itself has been updated nearly 30 times since the bands of red, white, and blue were stitched together in 1777 – more than any other flag in the world – adding stars as new states were formed.

“It’s meant to be a symbol that grows and changes with us as a nation,” says Michael Green, a vexillologist at Texas A&M University.

Patriotism in higher hopes

For some, the American flag symbolizes the freedom that allows citizens to speak out and provide the impetus for change. Michael Eaborn, a Black author and poet from Spencer, North Carolina, says the flag is a reminder that America has potential. “I love America. I think we can do better, but I’m never going to say I hate being an American, because I won the lottery: I was born in the USA,” he says.

Being patriotic doesn’t mean you have to approve of everything; it “means loving your country enough to want to make a change in it,” he adds. Mr. Eaborn says his patriotism has inspired him to act: He’s running for city council.

For Mr. Garner’s part, his father, brother, and sister all served in the military, as he did. He continues to serve the government as a civilian, and his brother is a police officer. “Service means a lot to us. Patriotism means a lot to us in the sense that we do love our country.”

But there is a need to widen the nation’s view of patriotism, he says. “We have to broaden the notion of patriotism and unhinge it from a white frame of reference.” 

To Mr. Garner, it can feel that being patriotic “means you’re being less Black.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way, Dr. Johnson says.

“The majority of Americans, for the first time in history, are demanding racial justice,” he says. “That changes the national consciousness on what the flag means. So now part of the flag is Black Lives Matter.”

The flag is already becoming a more universal symbol, he adds, and that’s fitting, because “this flag represents our love for this country and our love for [what] this country will eventually become.”

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