Sunday, July 6, 2008

Patriotism Interrupted

Eugene Robinson is a columnist at the Washington Post, and I stumbled upon a tremendous article in the July 4th Indianapolis Star that summed up my week. In his article, The Color of Patriotism, he spoke eloquently about the fact that patriotism is never simple as an African-American - but it does indeed exist.

When I think about the numerous veterans in our family, I'm humbled by their courageous service. Many have shared their personal experiences from the Army to the Navy - all contrasting their dedication and their opportunities, with the ongoing racism they countered before, after and during their years of service. Each has said in one way or another, they would live no where but the United States of America. They served a country with pride and commitment, but never fully escaped the challenges created with a country that rarely acknowledges the full extent of the beliefs held by its majority culture. My grandfather and my great uncles did not live long enough to see the first African-American with a realistic chance of becoming president accept the nomination of a major party. Yet, I can't pick up the paper without seeing countless articles that Barack Obama should have further defined, expressed and explained his patriotism. McCain's is just assumed.

My daughter, in camp this week, learned the hard way that patriotism is fraught with mixed emotions. She's been talking about celebrating the 4th of July, since some time in June. Yet, while at camp this week - a Christian Suburban Camp - she was told by her peers that she shouldn't be part of their club, "Because she's Black." I picked her up that day with explanations of reconciliation and efforts to explain the situation by the camp staff. I could barely hear their words as I searched the campers to see her face, to see if she was okay. And like generations of young African-American children before her, she had spent the majority of the day masking her emotions and making everyone feel better about what had happened to her. She was excluded, and made to feel less welcome - because of her skin color. Taunts about attractiveness and not fitting in followed.

It was her first, but I'm certain it won't be her last encounter of these experiences. I thought about my young cousin who had a similar experience at about sixth grade - I honestly wondered what my cousin might have done to provoke the attack. I owe her an apology. I now realize all she did was enter a world unkind and non-accepting of difference. Her experience in the suburbs of Toledo, ours just a few hours away. Our relocation to Indiana has had its share of these experiences (from school, to the parking lot, to neighborhood oddities unlike the experience of anyone else), but none quite as clear and overt as this one. With all of her frailty, we still love being Americans.

Our reality, however, is much different than that of our peers. Just like my uncles, and my grandfather before me, my children have had to learn at a very young age that being proud to be American means to accept the many imperfections of the country we live in. I don't believe you should have to define the oxymoron of the land of freedom and liberty at age 8 - but we are in the business of teaching it everyday. Sometimes it feels as if the color of patriotism should be green - green with envy for those who can simply celebrate without thinking about the daily experiences which reveal America's struggle to live up to its designed potential.

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