Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead (Courtesy Photo)
By Dr. Kaye Whitehead
Special to the AFRO
“America,” Langston Hughes once wrote, “never was America to me. And yet I swear this oath—America will be!” What will it take, I often wonder, for America, the land of the oppressed, home of racist cowards, to be America to me? What will it take for America, a place where billionaires are playing in outer space while the rest of us are drowning in debt; where people are arguing about vaccines and masks even after almost 700,000 Americans died of COVID, to be a place where I can roam and be free? What will it take for me to love this country enough to believe that it can be better?
I think about this often as I come from a long line of people who loved this country. They fought for it, died for it and believed in it. Our blood is mixed deep within the soil of South Carolina. I come from enslaved people on both sides of my family. On my daddy’s side, my ancestors lived on a plantation owned by two brothers, Jim and Dave Draft. I remember hearing these stories when I was younger and realizing early on that our history was entangled with their history. Even before I understood it or could articulate it, I knew that Black history was American history and that American history, when it was taught, only included White history. I knew what it felt like to be erased, which made it hard for me to love this country and call it my own.
My grandfather, my daddy’s daddy, loved this country. Even though he grew up in Jim Crow South Carolina and he was called the N-word more times than he could ever admit, he loved the promise of America. It is that America, the one that we talk about, sing about, and pledge our allegiance to, that called to him. It was the dream of that America that kept him moving forward. He would always tell me that we were the heart and soul of this country. “We are survivors,” he would say, “and because slavery couldn’t break us, Jim Crow didn’t and White folks won’t.”
He used to walk around reciting the Preamble, stopping after every line to add his commentary, and he would tell me that within those 52 words lay the promise of America: We the people (Boot, he would say, it’s not Them the People but We and that includes all of us) of the United States (We fought and died for this wretched country to become united, and it is in that bloody union, that we find ourselves.) in order to form a more perfect Union (A perfect Union can only exist when everyone comes to the table, when we all can contribute our time, our talent, and our treasure to this country.) establish justice (We want to do more than survive America, we want to thrive in this here nation as well.) insure domestic tranquility (Words that if actualized could have saved Emmett Till and Dr. King.) provide for the common defense (We hire the police so that we will protect us, not kill us.) promote the general welfare (We do this not for ourselves but for you and for the children you may have someday.) and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, (We fight for freedom and equality. We fight to be left alone and to be free. We fight so that our shoulders are strong enough for the next generation to stand on.) do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. (This is why I love this country because no matter what they do or what they try to tell us, this is our land. We built this country, and nobody can take that from us.)
“There’s never been equality for me,” Hughes goes on to write, “Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’” Only we, my grandfather, would sign and say, can make America America. He was one of the first people who taught me about fighting for justice within an unjust society. He taught me about equality and equity even though he had never experienced either of them. He taught me how to hold my head up, face racism and racists without flinching or tearing up or breaking a sweat. It is during those moments when I feel that I am in a fight to save this country that I think about my grandfather and his life. He was a gentleman, a deacon and a farmer. He used to rest his hand on my head when I was a little girl. He smelled like freedom, and I swore that I could see the whole world in his eyes. He spoke quietly but firmly. He stuttered just a little and would make a point to repeat his most salient points. He wanted to make sure that we understood him.
When I was getting ready to go to college, I called him for some advice. I wanted him to be proud of me. When I told him that I was getting ready to leave, I could hear the smile and the pride in his voice. “Go now and change the world,” he started laughing, “because you can. Don’t let those White folks stop you or try to contain you. They don’t hold your freedom in their hands. When you were a baby, I used to whisper in your ears. I told you all of the dreams I had for you. Those words are inside of you. They will come back to your remembrance when you need them the most. This is our country, now go and reshape it with your hands.” I wrote those words down, and every time I feel like the weight of this ole’ racist nation is threatening to bring me down, I pull them out and read them out loud to remind me of who I am and what America could be for me. “O, let America be America again,” as Langston Hughes extolled, “The land that never has been yet—And yet must be—the land where every man is free.”
Karsonya Wise Whitehead (email@example.com; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is an associate professor of African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the Founding Director of The Karson Institute for Race, Peace, and Social Justice and the award-winning host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM. She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons.
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