A few years back, a friend and I were at our apartment on the Fourth of July watching a pro-America VH1 Classic video block featuring "Crystal Blue Persuasion" and similar ilk. Our conversations always tend to have some degree of irreverence, so I wasn’t surprised when he said he identified as "American" as opposed to "African-American." I understood his argument: we grew up regular-ass black kids in America, guided by traditionally American mores and values. But because I’m prone to debate, I posed this question to him: "How proud are you to be an American?" Because he’s incapable of having a serious conversation for an extended duration, he jokingly gave me the finger and retreated to his room.
Three years later, in light of what’s happened across the nation six months into 2015, I wonder if my friend would answer the question. Better yet, I wonder how he’d answer it—because this year has continued to make it hard to identify as a proud American.
My childhood was characterized by early-onset conflict about my place in America. I grew up in Philadelphia, where the Fourth of July is kind of a big deal. Children digest the city’s lofty position in U.S. history through their surroundings, unconsciously becoming experts. Lessons about the Declaration of Independence’s adoption are history class requisites nationwide, but where other kids read about it in books, my youth was marked by frequent trips to Independence Hall, the site where the Declaration and the Constitution were discussed by men who looked nothing like me.
As I got older and the history lessons grew more intricate, the juxtaposition of slavery with the Declaration’s claim that "all men are created equal" nullified the latter. The Three-Fifths Compromise—which, funny enough, was agreed to at Philly’s 1787 Constitutional Convention—was an early and clear illustration that all lives did not matter. The fact that slavery didn’t end until some 80 years later hammered that point home with emphasis. By the time I grew up, skepticism and contention countered most of the excitement I had about Fourth of July fireworks and America’s largest free concert. What’s more, recent headlines have simply exacerbated the struggle.
Pride is a controversial emotion. It’s the result of two other factors—satisfaction and admiration, typically associated with positives. Yet because people can derive satisfaction from or admire the wrong things, pride is highly flammable. It took the murder of nine innocent people at a church to reignite discussions about the supposed merits of the Confederate flag—which some people still consider a sign of Southern pride, even though its white supremacist overtones are self-evident.
Following the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last month, officials in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and Tennessee decided that images of the flag have no place on state license plates. Mississippi’s Republican House Speaker argued that the symbol didn’t belong on the state flag, and lawmakers in South Carolina—where the massacre took place—even agreed to vote on the flag’s potential removal from the State Capitol. Bree Newsome was so incensed by its presence there that she scaled the flag pole last weekend and snatched it down with her bare hands, an act which placed her above Storm, Jean Grey, and Rogue in the superhero power rankings. But a willingness to admit the flaws with celebrating the Confederacy, or one act of heroism associated with it, are still just small victories.
Similar to pride, progress is a dubious concept. Many fail to grasp that steps in the right direction do not equate to a problem being solved, just as good intentions don’t heal all wounds. It’s encouraging that people are willing to entertain conversations about the Confederate flag’s removal, but while some bask in the glow of that perceived triumph, black churches are being burned at an alarming rate in the South. Freddie Gray’s death was ruled a homicide and the officers involved have been indicted, but the riots that erupted in Baltimore—just like those that took place in Ferguson last year—were motivated by a volcano of neglect and tension which finally erupted. The smoke has mostly cleared, yet the same question lingers: What now? For every step forward, there seem to be two in the opposite direction. Any furtherance is negated by regressive moves, but the key to navigating the madness is a matter of perspective.
Although the struggle of being a proud American is muddled by racism (overt, systemic, and institutional; the unholy trinity), bigotry, and unbridled ignorance, that shouldn’t revert us all to nihilists. Last week, the Supreme Court ruled to uphold the Affordable Care Act, making it so that people don’t have to die or face permanent financial ruin due to the astronomical costs of healthcare. Within days, the Court followed that ruling up by legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide—a middle-finger to prejudice across the country. Just as an assortment of people celebrated marriage equality, condolences and support following the Emanuel AME shooting poured in from a similar variety of others. There’s plenty more work to be done, but these are more incremental strides. And while America’s scale of good and bad is often tipped in favor of the latter, Americans can at least take pride in knowing that both headway and tragedy can unite.
Wide-sweeping inequality is one of the ills that comprises this country’s dark legacy. The adversity is inescapable, so the coping mechanism is to acknowledge and counter. Where Bill O’Reilly exists, so does Jon Stewart. The Ta-Nehisi Coateses make the Chuck Johnsons obsolete—and if only the Bree Newsomes outnumbered the Dylann Roofs. These glimmers of hope keep us hovering above total defeat, even when we’re at our most jaded. Even though it’s a challenge, these are reasons to be proud. Kendrick Lamar’s "Alright" became a luminous anthem before becoming a single, primarily because it’s an extension of support from someone clearly struggling with his own demons. If he can retain his pride and hold his head up high, so can the rest of us. So while I’m still somewhat ambivalent about American pride at the year’s halfway point, the sum of these small victories is cause for at least some optimism about the future.
Julian Kimble is a contributing writer. Follow him @JRK316.