Author and university professor Karsonya Wise Whitehead contemplated the concept of, “freedom,” as millions celebrated the Fourth of July.
I had a moment during Sunday service, when my pastor asked us to stand, turn toward the American flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I cringed as everyone quickly stood, placed their hands over their hearts, and proceeded to recite the Pledge, without question and without hesitation. I sat there fighting against my desire to stand and be obedient because I knew that as a black person in America, I could not pledge my allegiance to this racist nation or to our bigoted president.
In psychology, they call this moment cognitive dissonance, which happens when a person is struggling with at least two contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. I am a descendant of enslaved people who fought to survive in America and war veterans who died while fighting to protect America. I am a walking contradiction where my American racist values and my black consciousness and pride are constantly warring against one another. W.E.B. Du Bois called it double consciousness, an oppressive way of viewing and judging yourself, as a black person, through the eyes of a racist white society.
I thought about all of this as the Pledge gave way to the singing of, “My Country Tis of Thee,” because I believe that this America, this bastion of white supremacy, is not my ideal home. It is not where I feel safe or where I feel like I belong. I am the Sankofa bird who flies forward across this red, white, and blue landscape with rivers that run deep with the blood of innocent black and brown people, while hopelessly keeping my head turned in search of something else, of somewhere else. This feeling of black restlessness, despair, frustration, and anger are not new. It always feels like it is our blood that is on the leaves and at the roots, fertilizing the soil that feeds the American dream of white exceptionalism. We have long felt like we did not belong here.
Langston Hughes in his poem, Let America Be America Again, wrote “There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this homeland of the free.”
But still, in church I wanted to stand, as this is what I have been taught to do by my father and obviously expected to do by my pastor. I wanted to be obedient and follow the rules.
I really want to be proud of my country and to celebrate her independence. I want to answer Frederick Douglass’ question, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” and tell him that although it has taken us 165 years, we have finally arrived. I want to say that the Fourth of July is now our holiday for we have been embraced and counted as part of the American dream; that we have been allowed to fully participate in the democratic process and have seen the day when a person is judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. I want to say that we have gotten past the racist notion that skin color is more important than skills and talent; that we no longer have to shout that, “Black Lives Matter,” for we have gotten to a point where those types of questions (about who matters and who does not) have been settled and that we have realized that we are stronger together as one nation than we are apart.
I want to say that but I cannot. I think of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling; Terence Crutcher and Korryn Gaines; John Crawford III and Eric Garner; Rekia Boyd and Aiyana Jones; Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray, and countless others. I think of their lives and of what we lost on the day that they were murdered. These are the moments when America — a beacon and shining light of white hope and pride — brutally reminds us that the Fourth of July is theirs and not ours, and as they celebrate, we must mourn. It is hard to pledge allegiance to a country that does not recognize your humanity. In 1852, Douglass noted that slavery was the great sin and shame in America; today it is oppression, and it is white supremacy, and it is injustice.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead ([email protected]; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the #blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the author of “Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America” and “Notes from a Colored Girl.”