Ambivalence toward Independence Day, which commemorates the 1776 adoption of the Declaration of Independence (espousing liberty and equality while most blacks were enslaved), is nothing new for African Americans. The matter of black patriotism has likewise been debated through the years — ranging from solemn, unquestioning reverence for the flag to an angry rejection of allegiance to a combination that affirms America's best values and criticizes the nation where it falls short. Here, 15 prominent Americans describe their complicated, yet strong and deep, relationship with their country.
Frederick Douglass (1852)
"What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery."
W.E.B. Du Bois (1906)
"We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil and social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America! The battle we wage is not for ourselves alone but for all true Americans. It is a fight for ideals, lest this, our common fatherland, false to its founding, become in truth, the land of the thief and the home of the slave, a byword and a hissing among the nations for its sounding pretensions and pitiful accomplishments."
Mary McLeod Bethune (1939)
"[Black Americans] have always been loyal when the ideals of American democracy have been attacked. We have given our blood in its defense — from Crispus Attucks on Boston Commons to the battlefields of France. We have fought for the democratic principles of equality under the law, equality of opportunity, equality at the ballot box, for the guarantees of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness … Yes, we have fought for America with all her imperfections, not so much for what she is, but for what we know she can be."
James Baldwin (1955)
"I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."
Malcolm X (1964)
"I'm not an American. I'm one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So I'm not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag saluter, or a flag-waver — no, not I. I'm speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don't see any American dream; I see an American nightmare."
Stokely Carmichael (1966)
"I do not want to be a part of the American pie. The American pie means raping South Africa, beating Vietnam, beating South America, raping the Philippines, raping every country you've been in. I don't want any of your blood money. I don't want to be part of that system … And because black people are saying we do not now want to become a part of you, we are called reverse racists. Ain't that a gas?"
Martin Luther King Jr. (1967)
"I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. And there can be no great disappointment where there is not great love. I am disappointed with our failure to deal positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism."
Shirley Chisholm (1969)
"It behooves us to stay here and to fight. We have made this land, even though we have not been given the recognition, and nobody has to create any little nation or any little group and send us scuttling off. We want to go, we go. Freedom of choice. The black man's total commitment to America indicate[s] that the prospect ahead does seem bright. It is true that we are angry about our present plight, for we measure this country not by her achievements but by her potential."
Barbara Jordan (1978)
"We only want, we only ask, that when we stand up and talk about one nation under God, liberty, justice for everybody, we only want to be able to look at the flag, put our right hand over our hearts, repeat those words and know that they are true."
Thurgood Marshall (1987)
"Thus, in this bicentennial year, we may not all participate in the festivities with flag-waving fervor. Some may more quietly commemorate the suffering, struggle and sacrifice that has triumphed over much of what was wrong with the original document, and observe the anniversary with hopes not realized and promises not fulfilled. I plan to celebrate the bicentennial of the Constitution as a living document, including the Bill of Rights and the other amendments protecting individual freedoms and human rights."
Toni Morrison (1992)
"American means white, and Africanist people struggle to make the term applicable to themselves with ethnicity and hyphen after hyphen after hyphen."
Colin Powell (1994)
"Never lose faith in America. Its faults are yours to fix, not to curse. America is a family. There may be differences and disputes in the family, but we must not allow the family to be broken into warring factions. From the diversity of our people, let us draw strength and not cause weakness. Believe in America with all your heart and soul and mind. It remains the 'last best hope of Earth.' "
Cornel West (1994)
"I loathe nationalism. It is a form of tribalism — the idolatry of the 20th century."
Barack Obama (2008)
"For a young man of mixed race, without a firm anchor in any particular community, without even a father's steadying hand, it is this essential American idea — that we are not constrained by the accident of birth but can make of our lives what we will — that has defined my life, just as it has defined the life of so many other Americans. That is why, for me, patriotism is always more than just loyalty to a place on a map or a certain kind of people. Instead, it is also loyalty to America's ideals."
Condoleezza Rice (2008)
"What I would like understood as a black American is that black Americans loved and had faith in this country even when this country didn't love and have faith in them — and that's our legacy."