About US is a new initiative by The Washington Post to cover issues of identity in the United States. Look for the About US newsletter launching in the fall.
In 1969, Jimi Hendrix played a stirring rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock as part of a musical melody that incorporated sounds of war and taps, the bugle call played at military funerals. Hendrix was the last artist to play, and many onlookers called his performance a defining moment of the era. Protests against the Vietnam War were raging, and movements for Brown, Red, Yellow and Black Power were bringing the contradictions of American democracy into sharp relief.
Hendrix’s choice provides one example of how African American activists historically have disrupted simplistic notions of patriotism. Often, these displays have been criticized as anti-American, misinterpreted as signs of disrespect toward the country and its values. But music critic Greil Marcus gave a more accurate interpretation when he told Today.com about Hendrix’s performance, “There’s really no way to just characterize it as a protest against the war. It’s certainly that. But he’s also saying, ‘I’m a citizen of this country, too.’ ”
Black people have asserted their inextricable contributions to the history of this country while simultaneously protesting the racism embedded in the American nation-state since its inception. And yet, the patriotism of the black activist has again come into question as dozens of American athletes have taken a knee during the national anthem. While the original protest by Colin Kaepernick that began in August 2016 was designed to draw attention to systemic racism and police brutality, recent protests by the alt-right — which seeks a whites-only state — have raised the stakes and broadened the movement as the ugly underbelly of hate and intolerance that many people of color have battled historically in the United States has become inescapable.
Citizenship, as conferred to all people born or naturalized in the United States by the 14th Amendment in the wake of the Civil War, has remained a category defined by race and exclusion. As black people soon discovered, citizenship does not ensure equal protection from lynch mobs and police bullets.
Consequently, this reality has shaped black responses to the symbols of patriotism: the American flag, the national anthem, and holidays like Independence Day. Black people have plumbed deep wells of creativity to develop alternative rituals, fighting for holidays of our own creation, and persistently disrupting uncritical, ahistoric celebrations of patriotism. We have used our cultural presence, our intellectual traditions and even our very bodies.
At black civic events, graduations, church ceremonies, or holidays like Martin Luther King Jr. Day, black Americans lay proud claim to our own national anthem, James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and our own flag, the red, black and green Pan-African banner. From Frederick Douglass’s speech “What to the slave is the 4th of July?” to Langston Hughes’s 1926 assertion “I, too, sing America” to the Black Panther Party’s incorporation of the Declaration of Independence into its 10 Point Platform and Program — black people have remixed the content of patriotism to foreground the inseparability of dissent.
These displays were developed not because black Americans rejected patriotism, but because traditional patriotism rejected black Americans.
History reminds us that there is no one universal experience of citizenship. In the United States today, we have people who are conferred first-class citizenship due to whiteness and those who are second-class citizens (marginalized by darker skin tones), citizen-subjects (in places like Puerto Rico and Hawaii) and the colonized indigenous people in reservations. These lived experiences are not mutually exclusive. Today, when debates about calls for aid to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria rest on assertions of citizenship, when paths to citizenship for “dreamers” under the now rescinded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order have been blocked, and #takeaknee has swept the country, it is imperative to remember that “citizen” was never an uncontested category.
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