(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 third interview in the series, we spoke to Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), who says the most patriotic part of her job is talking to the parents of soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice and paying tribute to those in military service.
The Root: What's the most patriotic aspect of your work?
Terri Sewell: As a member of Congress, perhaps the most patriotic act of my job is talking to parents of fallen soldiers and honoring our veterans on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Nothing brings home the patriotism of my job more than honoring our servicemen and -women who have sacrificed so much for our country.
I would be remiss not to mention the African-American servicemen and -women who, during World War II, were fighting for democracy overseas while the enemy of prejudice and inequality awaited them at home. I am humbled by the fact that these men and women are just being honored today for the sacrifices they made during World War II. There is no greater honor than being able to bestow upon these servicemen and -women, my constituents, the Congressional Gold Medal as I have been able to do while serving in Congress.
TR: What, if anything, makes African Americans' relationship with patriotism unique?
TS: For every three steps we make forward, there is a potential for four steps back. The rights we have worked so hard to attain are under a constant state of vulnerability. Our legacy is one that reflects a dedication and love for our country that hasn't always been reciprocated.
Even when our country has not treasured and had faith in us, we have cherished and believed in it. We have never lost our faith, though, and we have benefited from that dedication and commitment to justice, equality and freedom for all Americans. Our victories in 1964 and 1965 were a direct reflection of the struggles we went through to have the equality promised by the Constitution, those democratic ideals of equality under the law for the assurances of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The Tuskegee Airmen and the Montford Point Marines are just now being honored for their service to our great nation. This is a reflection of the progress we have made but a reminder of the work left to do to make sure that their sacrifices are fully vindicated.
We still have to fight for our right to vote, as made evident by the Supreme Court's decision last week to overturn Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.
TR: What's missing from the conversation about African Americans?
TS: Great strides have been made, but much work needs to be made in regards to black economic empowerment. We have much work to do to minimize the discrepancies in employment, salary attainment and educational attainment for all African Americans.
TR: What's the best thing about being American?
TS: The great democracy we live in provides opportunities for all Americans to succeed. When Americans are provided with the resources they need to succeed, they are able to reach their full potential. My story is a reflection of this truth. I was once a congressional intern, and now, over 20 years later, I am a member of Congress.
As a little black girl educated in Selma, Ala., this would have never been possible had I not grown up in America. My story is only possible in America. With hard work, dedication and faith, I was able to achieve what I could have never imagined possible. The quest for the American dream is uniquely American.
Aja Johnson is an editorial fellow at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.