“I pledge to never be passive, patriotic, or grateful in the face of American abuse. I pledge to always thoughtfully bite the self-righteous American hand that thinks it’s feeding us. I pledge to perpetually reckon with the possibility that there will never be any liberty, peace, and justice for all unless we accept that America, like Mississippi, is not clean. Nor is it great. Nor is it innocent.” -Kiese Laymon, “What I Pledge Allegiance To”
White people, you can have patriotism. Take it. It’s yours. I would say I’m done with it, but I never really began so it’s more a forfeiture of something icky stuck to the bottom of my shoe than a desirable, potential ideology. Problematic to begin with. I was searching for a polite way to say this, something that could legally and acceptably be communicated in a public venue, something that takes into account all the sides and provides equal time, but I’m starting to wish I could reclaim every second I spent considering something so preposterous. And I’m seeing more and more polite conversations where Black people try and reach across the aisle to their white compatriots. An enterprise which, of course, is destined to fail, with no small amount of anguish along the way. More dubious even, are the premises most often used to ground this polite conversation.
Take for example, the essay: “I’m A Black Veteran. Why is Trump Making me Feel Unpatriotic?” written by Theodore R. Johnson. The title is an obvious rhetorical question–for Black people at least–and one that the author spends considerable time answering, but for who I’m not quite sure. He is well aware of our country’s social, historical, cultural and structurally racist under and over pinnings, citing as proof, up to docket number 64,398 out of 180,245 in America’s anti-Blackness archives before fatigue sets in (as it always does with these things) and he continues the essay; so why would he hope, against all logic that he himself has demonstrated, that the architects of such a ridiculously capitalist white hegemonic false-meritocracy would heed his warning? What motive could they possibly have to adjoin with his hope? Besides of course, a sense of white physical safety reliant upon the docility of polite hope itself. I won’t draw the obvious parallels to Obama.
Johnson’s argument seems to hinge on the empty meaning of the word patriotism. That is, by citing the gross maltreatment of Black Americans who have fought and died in the grand narrative of previous wars–for freedoms they could enjoy neither before or after their sacrifices–Johnson says that it has always been Black Americans who were the most patriotic. Therefore, he argues, it is a ridiculous and clearly polarizing claim to suggest that we are unpatriotic now, for say, protesting injustice. Johnson believes that Black Americans are being labeled as unpatriotic, because “unpatriotic ingrates are worse than racists could ever be.” This then, permits further exclusion and disregard for Black Americans under the excuse that we are unpatriotic, traitorous expendables.
And some of us are unpatriotic. So the fuck what? Is that not considered a form of freedom?
I just want to hug Johnson, really; though for reasons I’ll get to later, I doubt he would allow it. I can’t help but point out that before we were unpatriotic, we were already Black, and therefore not human through a white racial lens. The word unpatriotic in this sense remains empty still, analogous to any number of animalistic, fear inspiring, terrorizing, unclean, lazy, predatory, exclusionary and baseless phraseologies pulled from the depths of the limited white imaginary to excuse the unlimited, gratuitous destruction of Black bodies and the Black social death required to spin the hamster wheel of white civil society.
And we have to encounter the intellectual sloth of word patriotism itself, a rarely contextualized buzz word that, as I said earlier, white people can keep. What the fuck does it even mean? I started to title this rambling “What Patriotism Means to Me,” in the way Sherman Alexie sarcastically problematizes the broadly sweeping, unthought interpretations Sacagawea. Instead, I couldn’t help thinking of the constant dick measuring comparisons of who in what country is more patriotic. Apparently, Canadians are more patriotic than us. Good. Because here, The Huffington Post and The University of Chicago at least contextualize and compare the popular, concrete reasons why some people love their country. Apparently, Canadians are patriotic because of their social security system and how they treat different people within their society. Americans, unsurprisingly, are proud patriots because of our democratic system and our economic and political influence around the world. I would list this country’s imperialistic tourettes, its selfish impulses toward growth and power, among the the worst aspects of this nation, not the best. And on the prospect of democratic systems, of which we are not an island of one, well, they sometimes fail. And I’m not the first or last person to say any of that; the issue is how closely related to patriotism these problematic practices are, entangled as such with hero worship and heteropatriarchal white supremacy. This brings me to another point about Johnson’s essay.
Each time I encounter the words “fought” and “war” in the same sentence as justification for anything, I think of the Sylvia Plath poem, “Daddy;” though here, the writer’s conceptual framework seems “Scraped flat by the roller of wars, wars, wars” in a desolate town of ideas. The historical leap, uncontextualized as they must be into war and honor, inherently privileges war as just or noble. Good guys, vs. bad guys, where, under a mandatory American Exceptionalism we are always the good guys, always the innocent, defending the innocent through grotesque displays of violence that somehow leave us all–by some previously unstretched imaginary musculature–innocent. Especially our white compatriots. The other problem with this foundation is how we define fighting and war to begin with.
While think pieces abound on America’s longest war, referring to the broad conflict taking place primarily in the Middle East, I would argue that our longest, most fraught struggle has been, and continues to be for Civil Rights. It’s no accident that a conflict, a war, if you will, fought most vigilantly by Black women is constantly disregarded beneath large scale conflicts of the male ego, greed and exploitation. Kiese Laymon pulls few punches when extrapolating this hypocrisy in his essay “What I Pledge Allegiance To,” where he begins with the empty symbolism of the flag itself. Fighting, and its grand apex of war, have always been associated with the worst parts of maleness, that toxic, blinding masculinity that prioritizes violence and forecloses all productive avenues in which male subjectivity is not at the forefront. When Johnson relies on the wars in which Black Americans have fought to garner support, all I see is the circular reiteration of the master’s tools.
And here, I get tired again. Picturing Johnson’s essay in the hands of a Jeff Sessions or some other political buffoon who thinks that Black Lives Matter is a hate group, but ignores the Klan just makes me sad. Not because I think they will completely discard his argument, but the opposite. His essay will likely be taken seriously by most people, though not because the country wants to redeem itself, or see Black Americans as human, but because of our lust for easy symbolic victory. Because it doesn’t require a serious interrogation into historical truth or contemporary epistemological blind spots. Because it provides a structural and linguistic map of where next to shift the sturdy goal posts of subjugation, while ensuring that the racial fault line persists.