By Eugene Robinson
Anyone who took U.S. history in high school ought to know that one of the five men killed in the Boston Massacre, the atrocity that helped ignite the American Revolution, was a runaway slave named Crispus Attucks. The question the history books rarely consider is: Why?
Think about it for a moment. For well over a century, British colonists in North America had practiced a particularly cruel brand of slavery, a system of bondage intended not just to exploit the labor of Africans but to crush their spirit as well. Backs were whipped and broken, families systematically separated, traditions erased, ancient languages silenced. Yet a black man—to many, nothing more than a piece of property—chose to stand and die with the patriots of Boston.
Now think about the Buffalo Soldiers and the Tuskegee Airmen. Think about Dorie Miller, who, like so many black sailors in the segregated U.S. Navy of the 1940s, was relegated to kitchen duty—until Pearl Harbor, when Miller rushed up to the deck of the sinking USS West Virginia, carried wounded sailors to safety and then raked Japanese planes with fire from a heavy machine gun until he ran out of ammunition.
Think about Colin Powell—but also think about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a former Marine. And consider, as we celebrate Independence Day, how steadfast and complicated black patriotism has always been.
The subject is particularly relevant now that the first African-American with a realistic chance of becoming president, Barack Obama, has felt compelled to give a lengthy speech explaining his own patriotism. It is not common, in my experience, for sitting U.S. senators to be questioned on their love of country—to be grilled about a flag pin, for example, or critiqued on the posture they assume when the national anthem is played. For an American who attains such high office, patriotism is generally assumed as a given.
It seems that some people don’t want to give Obama the benefit of that assumption, however, and I have to wonder if that’s because he’s black. And then I have to wonder why.
The fact that African-American patriotism is never simple doesn’t mean it’s in any way halfhearted; to the contrary, complicated relationships tend to be the deepest and strongest. It’s a historical fact that black soldiers and sailors who fought overseas in World War II came home to Southern cities where they had to ride in the back of the bus—and that they were angry that the nation for which they had sacrificed would treat them this way. To some whites, I guess, it may seem logical to be suspicious of black patriotism—to believe that anger must somehow temper love of country.
It doesn’t, of course. It never has. Black Americans are just more intimately and acutely aware of some of our nation’s flaws than many white Americans might be. This generalization is less true of my sons than of my parents, and I hope that someday it won’t be true at all. But only in the past half-century has the United States begun to fully extend the rights of citizenship to African-Americans—and only in the past year has the idea that a black man might actually be elected president been more than a plot device for movies and television shows. We’re someplace we’ve never been.
Michelle Obama was sharply attacked for saying that she felt proud of her country for the first time in her adult life. Her phrasing may have been impolitic, but I know exactly what she meant.
This isn’t about whether or not Barack Obama wins. Just the fact that he might win is an incredible change for this country—and recognizing the importance of that change is, to me, the very essence of patriotism.
What’s unpatriotic is pretending that the past never happened. What’s unpatriotic is failing to acknowledge that we’ve struggled with race for nearly 400 years. What’s unpatriotic is relegating “black history” to the month of February when really it’s American history, without which this nation could never be what it is today.
My father, Harold I. Robinson, served in the Army during World War II and has lived to witness this transformative moment of possibility. My father-in-law, the late Edward R. Collins, was a sailor who saw action in the South Pacific; he rests at Arlington National Cemetery. I have no patience with anyone who thinks that patriots don’t have brown skin.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group