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Opinion | Loving America Means Expecting More From It

Opinion | Loving America Means Expecting More From It

Patriotism did not bring my grandfather to the Army recruiter’s office in 1956. Poverty did. A youth spent picking cotton and working odd jobs to help feed his family meant that he was a good way from graduating from high school as his 18th birthday approached. He wanted a better life for himself and saw the Army as a way to make it happen.

He ended up staying three years beyond his initial three-year commitment. A sepia-toned photograph of him in his uniform still hangs proudly in his bedroom in Huntsville, Ala.

For my grandfather, military life was not without challenges. He recalls that he and other Black soldiers were consistently addressed as “boys” until he stood up to his commanding officer and told him that there were nothing but men in their unit. After this tense and even dangerous exchange, the officer addressed them respectfully — a small triumph that my grandfather never forgot.

I asked him why he continued on and he replied, “I guess I loved America more than I thought. I definitely liked it more than Russia.”

The military was the first integrated space he encountered. “We served together, marched together, slept in the same barracks and learned to respect each other,” he said. During his six years of service, he finished high school and took extra classes. He returned to civilian life equipped with certifications to be a fireman, a merchant seaman and a bookkeeper. But in Alabama in the 1960s no one would not hire him to do any of those things. His first job was as a janitor.

My grandfather’s feelings about America are by turns fond and critical. He loved his unit and the moments when the white men he served with treated him as an equal. He also laments those times when he wasn’t, especially in the civilian years that followed. Now, at age 86, he gets animated talking about how he never got to be a fireman.

His story embodies America’s great contradiction of being both a land of opportunity and one that hinders it at too many turns.

To my children, he is almost a mythic figure who climbed out of American history books. Despite all that he became — he opened his own music store in the 1990s — he cannot help but think he could have been even more.

He is my kids’ connection to a past they do not quite understand.

My children are not the only ones who do not know what to do with my grandfather’s story or his complex form of patriotism that holds tight to affection despite a deep sense of betrayal.

In this country we have come to see patriotism as a positive account of our history that treads lightly upon the nation’s sins. The Fourth of July in particular is a time to wrap ourselves in the flag, grill some meat and run through a playlist of songs with lyrics lauding Americana. Talking about slavery, Jim Crow, economic exploitation and what happened to Black soldiers after they finished their service ruins the vibes.

It costs nothing to sing along to “God Bless America.” It requires much more to believe in a place that has failed you.

As an African American who speaks on anti-Black racism, I often hear the refrain, “If you hate America so much, you should leave.” But I don’t recount my grandfather’s story because I hate America. I tell it because to omit stories like his would only hinder us from becoming a better country. On the other side of honesty is the possibility of change. For me, telling the truth is the most hopeful form of patriotism.

Too often we worry that if we tell our children about our complex and sometimes dark history, their response will be debilitating shame. But instead of lying to our youth, we can give them a task that demands the best of them. We can call upon them to close the often-gaping chasm between our ideals and practices. This is the gift the past offers us, a chance to flee old evils and pursue new goods.

It is not enough to imagine ourselves riding down the road with Paul Revere shouting warnings about Redcoats or nestled on the boats preparing to storm the beaches of Normandy. We must note that the liberty Revere helped win was for some Americans, not all. We must recognize that the African Americans who risked their lives on that beach in France returned to a racially segregated country in which they were the targets of lynching.

This year, my mother’s side of the family will host a reunion on July 4 weekend. We will grill and set off fireworks like everyone else. We might even listen to Marvin Gaye’s or Whitney Houston’s rendition of the national anthem while we wait for the meat to finish cooking.

There will also be criticism of this country, especially since it’s an election season. That will not be all we have to say. We’ll talk about the long journey of my family from the plantation to the present freedoms we enjoy. That story contains its own mix of tragedy and triumph. We’ll speak of my grandfather’s service along with that of his father and two of his uncles, all three of which fought in World War II. In my generation, a cousin also served.

These emotions of love, pride and regret can reside in the same heart. It is the truest form of patriotism, a love that isn’t complacent, one that demands more than crumbs from justice’s table.

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