(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?
CB: Patriotism is about service and sacrifice. I'm part of a larger community in Newark, where so many people are living that aspect of service to one's country. Whether it's a firefighter or a police officer or a community activist, I feel very blessed to be with a lot of folks who exhibit their patriotism, not through words or symbols but through the substance of their service.
TR: What's the best thing about being American?
CB: I love being part of a nation that has proven through its history its ability to grow, heal and march toward some of humanity's highest ideals. This is a glorious nation that has brought together people from all over the globe who are coming together to try and make a more perfect union, to make a nation of liberty and justice for all. That aspiration has led to the progress we've made, and that inspires me and makes me feel proud to be an American.
TR: If you could change just one thing about America, what would it be?
CB: I think it's this idea that Dr. King said so eloquently: The problem today that we'll have to repent for is not the vitriolic words and abominable actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and inaction of the good people.
The thing that we need to understand is that American history has proven time and time again that there's no such thing as impossible. The question of us dealing with our challenges and unfinished business is not a question of can we address these issues — it's do we have the collective will. I'm hoping to be one in a number of people who help to inspire the will, courage, hope and urgency within all of us so we can be a part of that change by dedicating ourselves to the challenges before us.
I know how powerful we are as a nation, but the challenge for us is manifesting that power and directing our energies towards making a better America. That's really what I hope we can all be a part of in the coming days, months and years.
Ultimately, our democracy cannot be a spectator sport, where some sit on the sidelines and watch others competing in the arena. All of us must enter the arena. We have an obligation to make change. Indeed, our very patriotism must recognize that we are here because of the sweat, struggle and sacrifice of those who came before us.
If we are to prove worthy of that inheritance and call ourselves Americans, the way we do that is not with our words or symbols but with our continued struggle. There is work to do in America; there is still injustice that must be made right. I look forward to being a part of the next great movement in America that will be this generation's contribution.
Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.