This holiday weekend, the country is celebrating the day the great American experiment began 245 years ago. But as we know, America’s history has not always reflected its purported values of equality and justice for all. In 1852, abolitionist Frederick Douglass famously asked in a speech, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” Today, that history complicates the feelings many have for their country, leading some to question what patriotism should mean to the Black American.
Alvin Tillery, director of the Center of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University, says that when it comes to Independence Day, Black Americans can find plenty to celebrate in our nation’s history.
“I’m descended from men that fought in the Revolutionary War, Black men who got their freedom from fighting in that war. And, for me it is about celebrating the birth of the country, but also the fact that without Black Americans, this country would have failed. Without Black Americans, there would be no democracy to speak of. And that’s what I celebrate with my family and my children every year.”
Author and activist Michelle Duster acknowledges that for Black Americans, notions of freedom are far from abstractions.
“I think for African Americans, it’s a little bit complicated when you talk about, what does freedom mean for us?” she said.
Any pride of country must include critical assessment, she said, and a devotion to constantly working towards the “more perfect union” of the preamble to the Constitution.
“It’s possible to live in a country and have great respect for the country and appreciate the fact that we have so many different freedoms and opportunities, but at the same time realize that there is still room for improvement and there is still room for change in order for the country to live up to its true potential of what it’s supposed to be,” she said. “So to me, patriotism is a love of country but also pushing the country to be its best self.”
For Jimmy Lee Tillman II, an author, activist and founder of the Martin Luther King Republicans, the turbulence of the past year has fortified his belief in American ideals.
“Just to see two groups of Americans — Black Lives Matter and ‘MAGA-ites’ — standing up for what they believe in, argue their rights and principles because this is America and America is a free country … the problem is our true history is not being told. And we are sitting around here with this victim mentality not knowing that in the beginning of this great country, Black Americans were right there from the beginning.”
Tillman contrasts the flag-waving patriotism of generations past to present-day displays.
“There’s a lot of Black Americans that are proud of this country … it’s just that most Black Americans have a different way of expressing that patriotism,” he said. “You know, when we see Michael Jordan or Lebron James, whoever is in the United States of America playing basketball, every Black American is a patriot. Everybody has a flag out there.”
Tillery invokes his grandfather’s service in World War II to illustrate what America has historically asked of its Black citizens.
“I think the kinds of patriotism that Black Americans have historically elevated is a love of country when that country did not love them,” Tillery said. “And that is the highest level of patriotism that I think has ever been reflected in our nation.”