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I love fireworks, cookouts and trips to the park as much as anyone, and will gladly partake in those events on the Fourth of July holiday. But surely there are others like me, who find it strange (ironic? hypocritical? comical?) to celebrate July 4, 1776, as U.S. "Independence Day," when African Americans' forefathers and foremothers remained in bondage nearly 100 years afterward. Historic as it is, the Declaration of Independence means little to black folks until you add 1) the Emancipation Proclamation (1862), which freed the slaves, and 2) the 13th Amendment (1865), which abolished slavery.

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This isn't a suggestion to ignore the Fourth of July; the date represents a pivotal moment in the nation's history and should be recognized as such. It's just hard to swallow the founders' notion that "all men are created equal" with God-given rights of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," knowing that black men and women were suffering innumerable atrocities even as the ink dried.

However, declaring that the founding patriots were unethical doesn't make me unpatriotic. Just because I used to remain seated during the national anthem doesn't mean I lack affection for my country. Though I definitely hate some of the policies America has adopted throughout history, I definitely don't hate America. (Sitting during the anthem used to be my silent protest, a form of civil disobedience and a testament to freedom of expression; I later adopted my current habit of standing with head bowed and eyes closed, in silent prayer for our country and her past, current and future generations.)

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Patriotism became a hot-button issue during the 2008 presidential campaign, with the likes of John McCain, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and other conservatives talking about "real Americans," as if some of us are counterfeit. According to them, if you waved the flag, wore one on your lapel and believed the country was fine, you were patriotic. But if you criticized the commander in chief, opposed the Iraq war and believed in the cause of social justice, you were unpatriotic.

The right used to champion a "love it or leave it" philosophy, which is hilarious when you consider the actions of the tea partiers. "Love it or leave it" always struck me as a juvenile approach, like the mindset of a kid who threatens to take his ball and go home unless he gets his way. I've never understood the problem with loving America and trying to improve it by acknowledging its strengths and its weaknesses in order to increase one and reduce the other. I guess it took a shift in power for tea party disciples to get past conservatives' old, childish stance and begin to criticize a nation they say they love.

They call themselves "true patriots" and talk about "taking our country back," acting as if they're the only ones who love America. But trying to determine who really loves his country is like trying to determine who really loves her spouse. Words of affirmation and acts of service in public suggest one thing, but violence and mental abuse behind closed doors suggest the opposite.

Conservatives shouldn't question liberals' bona fides, and liberals shouldn't mock conservatives' sincerity. Neither side owns the issue of patriotism, which doesn't even belong in the political arena. But just like religion, patriotism has become a measuring stick and dividing line in electoral matters.

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That's not what July Fourth is about.

It's a time to come together and celebrate the Founding Fathers' decision to split from England. It's a time to put differences aside and reflect on our nation's historic journey and the future that awaits. It's a time to rededicate ourselves to the principles and ideals this country stands for and to do our part to help the country live up to them.

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Liberals, Democrats and city dwellers love this country just as much as conservatives, Republicans and small-town residents. "Real Americans" live all over and come in a wide range of colors, religions and sexual orientations. You can find them on both sides of most arguments, be it abortion or affirmative action, the death penalty or the right to bear arms.

Some have college degrees; some don't. Some graduated from high school, some didn't. They dwell in every socioeconomic range from the upper-class to the working poor, from white collar to blue collar to no collar. They live in high-rise apartments and double-wide trailers, single-family homes and overcrowded homeless shelters.

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Aside from engaging in acts of terror and treason, there's no litmus test for my patriotism or my love of this country. Mark Twain defined patriotism as "supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it." It's like if you go outside and see a family member being attacked. You don't stop to ask questions; you jump in and try to help.

Once it's over, you might want to hit the family member yourself if you determine he started the fracas. But the point is, you were there for him, right or wrong. Patriotism isn't believing that America is faultless and flawless. It isn't agreeing with every policy, domestic or foreign. It isn't standing for the anthem or wrapping yourself in the flag.

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It's wanting what's best for the country-as you see fit-and a determination to stand for the country no matter what. I don't think denying equal rights and trouncing civil liberties is the way to go. I don't think fear and loathing of minorities helps anything either. I'll stand and fight for America, right or wrong, but I want her to be right.

That's what goes through my mind on the Fourth of July.

Deron Snyder is a regular contributor to The Root.

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