"A flag is a symbolic gesture if there isn't any follow-through," said Dennis Rahim Watson, president of the National Black Youth Leadership Council.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, flag waving and public displays of patriotism can be seen all over the country. At baseball games, fans wave flags and sing "God Bless America" during the seventh inning stretch, and flags are draped outside homes and businesses.
And while historically African Americans have often felt ambivalent about expressions of patriotism, since September 11, 2001, like other US citizens, blacks have rallied around the flag and around their country.
"I think that the patriotism among black people that we are seeing is refreshing," said Jumoke Jones, a 27-year-old executive assistant at a large investment banking firm. "Some people are jumping on the bandwagon, but I think it is okay because this is the only time some people may be feeling that they are a part of the country."
For a younger generation of African Americans like Jones, now may be the first time they have felt such a level of identification and belonging in their national homeland. In the absence of national conflict, younger blacks have often felt like outsiders in America as they have had to deal with America's history of racial oppression and remnants of racial discrimination that are an everyday reality.
But the terrorist attacks, which killed people of all racial backgrounds, religions and nationalities, have forced many African Americans to come to grips with their Americanness.
"Being an African American and dealing with racism from the age of nine, I never considered myself an authentic American, whatever that is," said Adisa Banjako, a hip hop journalist. "As I learned more about my African heritage and my religion, which is Islam, I felt even more alienated from whatever the essence of what America is. But I realized that on the day of the bombing, had I been on the plane, my blackness and Islamicness were negated and I would have been just as dead as everyone else."
While still a critic of some US policies, Banjako said he has become a full-fledged American as a result of the attack, a transformation shared by countless other blacks who may have grudges against American policy, but who have decided to bury their antagonism for the good of the country.
"It has been rather refreshing for people to put aside differences and for people to rally around things we have together, such as family and faith," said Kweisi Mfume, head of the NAACP on Fox News. "It has united all of our country."
While the national crisis has united most Americans, some African Americans have questioned America's commitment to freedom and justice in light of its historic mistreatment of blacks and some of its foreign policies. And many blacks who take pride in their nationality and pledge to defend their country have expressed reservations about America's march towards war.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) cast the lone congressional vote against granting the President backing in the war effort, and prominent African American writer Michael Eric Dyson has said that while he supports bringing those responsible for the attacks to justice, "declaring war on Afghanistan is as corrupt as the original act of aggression."
And in one Florida county, three black firefighters were suspended when they expressed reservations about displaying an American flag on their truck. "What the flag means to white America is totally different from what it means to myself," one of the firefighters told a local newspaper. "As a black man in the country, as someone being subjugated, as my ancestors who have been mistreated so, of course I have reservations about the American flag." Though their reasons for objecting to displaying the flag are disputed [they say the flag was obstructing their view], the three firefighters have been ostracized and threatened because of their objections.
"You have freedom here as long as it goes along with the program," lamented one.
Some African Americans, like Boots of the rap group The Coup, attribute many African Americans' uncritical embrace of patriotism to the emotional fervor of this specific moment in American history, when Americans reeling from the worst terrorist attack in US history are standing united in a passionate display of patriotism that may ultimately be fleeting.
"For the first time in my life and I didn't expect to see this... Black people standing on the overpass on one of the freeways in Oakland waving the American flag," said Boots. "It's because of all of this hype."
However, the wave of patriotism sweeping across the black community is not new. In fact, blacks have patriotically rallied behind America during every war and crisis in its history. Crispus Attucks, a black patriot, was the first to die in the Boston Massacre of 1770, one of the first battles in the war for American independence, and more than 5,000 - both free blacks and slaves - ultimately joined the Continental Army, while many others served in local militias. And although blacks were initially barred from armed service, and America's armed forces remained segregated until the 1940s, black soldiers have fought and supported every major American military campaign.
"During America's wars, black protest has always given way to black patriotism," writes syndicated columnist Dr. Earl Ofari Hutchinson. "During World War I, black scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois, in a Crisis magazine editorial, rallied blacks to the flag with a call to close ranks and to forget their racial grievances. They flocked to a segregated army in droves. Patriotic fever among blacks soared during World War II."
Throughout World War II, black newspapers led the "Double V" campaign, which called for Victory against fascism abroad and racism at home. Blacks supported the war by joining the military and by buying millions of dollars of war bonds, which helped fund the war. While black soldiers returning from abroad still had to contend with segregation and racism at home, African American willingness to serve and die in America's wars helped to reinforce the calls for the rights of full citizenship and an end to Jim Crow laws.
More recently, with the ending of official segregation and the removal of many of the racial barriers that blacks have faced in America, younger blacks like Jumoke Jones do not have any problem wearing their patriotism on their sleeves.
Jones, who has lived outside of the United States in Europe for a time, has come to peace with America. She said that despite the racial problems and attitudes black people have to deal with, "most black people don't realize how great a country we live in."
Columnist and essayist Stanley Crouch agrees. "America is one of the greatest countries in the world in terms of the possibilities that are available to the people in its society," said Crouch.
"You've got people who advocated the violent overthrow of the United States in the 1960s, who are now tenured college professors at American universities. Do you think that anyone who would have advocated the violent overthrow of China or Cuba 20 years ago would be teaching in those countries now?"
While acknowledging America's history of injustice towards blacks, Crouch said that black Americans should not have any shame in being patriotic, especially since many social movements that improved the country have been led by African Americans. "A good deal of what makes America great, black people were a part of that," said Crouch. "Including the winning of the Civil War that brought chattel slavery to a halt."
He said that blacks' actions have been a powerful force for progress.
"I am 56 years old, and we are talking about a country in which black people made it possible for us to have an Oprah Winfrey," said Crouch. "This did not come by luck. This was the result of blacks changing America."
Dennis Rahim Watson, president of the National Black Youth Leadership Council, agrees that patriotism is positive, but he worries that the current wave of black patriotism is a "false form of patriotism."
"A flag is a symbolic gesture if there isn't any follow-through," said Watson. "The genuine patriots are the people who do all the work all of the time."
He cited groups such as the 100 Black Men and others, and said that he hopes that the current waves of charity and volunteerism will continue after people finish dealing with the grief of the terrorist attacks.
The one positive side effect of the terrorist attacks on America, many say, might be a renewed sense of community, solidarity and empathy.
"This will bring America closer because we were all affected," said Banjako. "We are all in mourning."
|l||Why We Should Wave the Flag
by Earl Ofari Hutchinson
My head jerked at the enormous American flag that covered the hood and wrapped around the passenger and driver's doors on the van that stopped behind me at an intersection. This came moments after President Bush told the nation that the much-anticipated military assault on Afghanistan had finally begun. The driver's flag triggered a spontaneous outburst of shouts, honks, and pumped fists from other drivers and pedestrians. The driver grinned in delight, shouted and pumped his fists back at them. The impromptu patriotic outburst was no aberration.
That scene has been repeated at countless intersections and on neighborhood streets throughout America since the September 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Everyone, it seems, from gang bangers to stockbrokers has answered President Bush's September 14th proclamation and Congress's resolution that called on Americans to display Old Glory. The flag suddenly is no longer a piece of cloth trotted out by white, middle-aged homeowners in suburban neighborhoods on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. The flag is now America's defiant symbol of pride and rage at the barbaric terror attacks.
And, predictably, it has also become a chic, fast-buck fashion fad hawked on street corners, sold in department stores, and clothing shops as bandannas, t shirts, hats, and scarves, and on posters and album covers in record stops.
Yet, despite their flag zeal, many Americans remain clueless about the flag. This was apparent at a candlelight vigil I attended the week after the attack. At the end of the vigil, the crowd broke into a spontaneous rendition of God Bless America and The Star Spangled Banner. Their voices quickly became a hopeless muddle. Many jumbled the lyrics, or simply didn't know them. If they botched the words to two of America's oldest and most revered patriotic standards, could they really be expected to understand, let alone, embrace, the noble virtues the flag supposedly represents?
Many don't, and it this should be no surprise. Two decades of court challenges by civil liberties groups to the constitutionality of school prayer, the pledge of allegiance, and other patriotic rituals have made school districts duck for cover at any mention of touting the flag and patriotic symbols. Also, during the 1960s student rioters, black militants, and Vietnam war protesters ridiculed the flag as, at best, old-fashioned and outdated, and, at worst, a hated symbol of American dominance.
Conservatives instantly seized on the widespread public disdain for flag rituals. They cast themselves as the protectors and defenders of the flag against the defilers. They draped it over stages, platforms and the podiums at their meetings, rallies, and conventions. They wore it as tiepins and insignias. They refashioned its symbolism and meaning to stand for unbridled expansion of police power, anti-abortion and gay rights, anti-unionism, the gut of education, and affirmative action programs, and school prayer restrictions. The flag now appeared to many as an even more distasteful symbol of bigotry, intolerance and injustice.
But it should not. The flag must be refashioned to stand for racial and ethnic tolerance. This means that federal and state officials must continue to vigorously denounce hate attacks not only against American Muslims, but all minorities. They must swiftly bring federal or state charges against hate attackers.
The flag must stand for the rigorous safeguard of civil rights and civil liberties. This means opposing all proposals to give the FBI, CIA, FAA, and local police agencies, unrestricted power to racially profile, wiretap, surveil, and hold in indefinite detention those suspected of crimes under the guise of battling domestic terrorism.
The flag must stand for the right to dissent and peacefully protest. This means that the public, Congress and President Bush must respect and protect the right of demonstrators to peacefully assemble and protest government war policies. They must condemn those who physically threaten and verbally abuse California congressperson, Barbara Lee, who cast the lone Congressional vote against giving Bush a blank check to wage war against anyone, anywhere, anytime that he brands a terrorist. For exercising her Constitutional right to vote her conscience, she now requires a 24- hour police guard.
Those religious leaders, public officials, and individual Americans who instantly condemned attacks against Muslims, applauded Lee for her courage in dissent, even while they disagreed with it, and those Congresspersons who voted to limit the police power of federal agencies should be praised. They understood that the flag has real meaning when it stands for the stout defense of the civil rights and civil liberties of those who oppose government policies not only in times of peace, but in times of war and national crisis. The eternal challenge for Americans is to follow their lead.
Those who do will truly earn the right to wave the flag.
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