(The Root) — A lot has changed since 1903, when W.E.B. Du Bois described black Americans as possessing what he called a “double consciousness,” caught between a self-conception as Americans and as people of African descent. As he put it in The Souls of Black Folk: “The Negro ever feels his two-ness-an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings … two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
Fast-forward 110 years later. We have a black president and a disappearing white majority on the one hand, and persistent, systemic racial inequality and all-too-common overt bigotry on the other. Meanwhile, in a major blow to civil rights, the Supreme Court just gutted the legislation that was designed to protect African Americans’ right to vote. And the entire country is watching to see how our criminal-justice system will impart justice for Trayvon Martin, who many believe lost his life simply because he was black.
In an interview series commemorating Independence Day, The Root checked in with a diverse group of leaders and thinkers to get their take on what’s changed and what hasn’t — and what it means to be black, American and patriotic in 2013.
For the first interview in the series, we spoke to Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, who says that more Americans should view public service as a privilege.
The Root: What, if anything, makes African Americans’ relationship with patriotism unique?
Cory Booker: All ethnic groups in America have unique relations to this country, whether it’s Chinese Americans who helped build the transcontinental railroad under hostile working conditions or Italian Americans coming here as immigrants through Ellis Island. For African Americans, we have a wonderful history, as many ethnic groups do, in helping this country live up to its promise and hope.
Blacks in particular have served as the conscience of our country, helping our nation to fulfill its promise and ideals. In that sense, African Americans should be very proud of where America is because that position came from the sacrifice and struggle of African Americans, from slavery to every single war fought by this country. Their contributions have been legion, but also, African Americans need to understand that, as Langston Hughes wrote so eloquently in a poem, “America never was America to me, [and yet] I swear this oath — America will be!” African Americans have the same allegiance as all Americans, which is to continue to fight to make the fullness of the American dream real for everyone.
TR: What’s the most patriotic aspect of your work?