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PORTSIDE  July 2012, Week 1

PORTSIDE July 2012, Week 1

Subject:

The Fourth of July and My American Son

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Date:

Thu, 5 Jul 2012 21:16:15 -0400

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The Fourth of July and My American Son

    For me, a black Briton, patriotism has always
    been problematic. But for my US-born son, the
    American dream has real meaning

By Gary Younge 
Guardian (UK) 
July 4, 2012

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/04/fourth-july-american-son

During my first week in the US, I went to the Mall in
Washington, DC for the Fourth of July. With flags
billowing and picnic baskets disgorging, I remember
hearing John Wayne's voice, over a loudspeaker,
extolling the nation's innate virtues, followed by a
huge cheer. Within half an hour, he was joined by
some Martin Luther King championing, once again
greeted by applause.

I admit I was confused. Which America were they
rooting for? The gun-toting, swashbuckling land of
the settler or the non-violent home to the struggle
for equality. Or was there more than one?

This is what I've always found both impressive and
enraging about American patriotism. I love its
flexibility - the notion that however problematic
majorities of every race, ethnicity and religion found
a place for themselves in the national story. The
trouble is that story all too often slips from a
celebration of shared citizenship to a proclamation
of genius - as though being an American is, in itself,
a higher form of human being.

This has always struck me as a virus that can find
its home in any political body. For many, being
American is understood not as a starting point from
which a greater understanding of the world might be
achieved, but an end point, after which the rest of
the world ceases to exist. Badges and placards
announcing that "Peace is an American value" or
that the war in Iraq was somehow "un-American"
make me every bit as uncomfortable as the more
traditional bellicose and belligerent jingoism. In my
experience, sentences that start, "As an American
." rarely end well.

In Britain, patriotism is an altogether rather
embarrassing and more rigid affair. Generally
speaking, flags and anthems are for sporting events,
royal weddings, Jubilees and nationalists - all of
which in some way hanker for former glory. I don't
begrudge the joy of thousands who braved the rain
to watch the flotilla of boats float along the Thames
last month, but I don't share it and have never
found a way to relate to it. British patriotism, it
seems, exists not so much as love for your country,
but for its past. We are great, goes the logic, because
we were better. Hence the football chant when
Britain plays Germany - "two world wars and one
world cup"; reaching back almost 50 years for some
sense of cultural superiority.

As such, British identity - and this goes for most
other European national identities - has long
suffered from the illusion not of genius going
forward, but purity going backwards. Being British,
in the minds of many, is not a work in progress but
an artefact inherited from the past. As a black
Briton whose parents came to the UK from Barbados
in the early 1960s, this is the kind of nation-love I
can do without. It harks back to a time before I
existed and effectively celebrates it because I wasn't
there.

Britain doesn't have an independence day; it simply
looks askance as most of the rest of the world
celebrates independence from it.

For me, growing up, it felt that there was no way to
become British. It was an identity you either
accepted wholesale or did without. I did without.

So, I have long looked upon the Fourth of July with
twinge of envy. If there must be nation states, then I
would rather there be a national identity I can relate
to. If I'm going to pay taxes, I might as well get the
badge.

But more recently, I have come to relate to it with
more than just anthropological interest. For I now
have an American son. Over the five years since he
was born, I have made my peace with the fact that I
will eventually lose him to a vaguely familiar world
of little league, dental braces and phonetic spelling.
But the notion that I may also have to give him up
to the unwieldy beast of American identity is far
more tricky.

Not only have I never been a patriot. Before I came
to the US, I'd actively avoided them. So how to make
sense of the fact that I might be raising one?

For while I understand the appeal of Independence
Day, there has long been tension between black
America and American patriotism. In his famous
speech "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?", in
1852, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass explained
to his mostly white audience:

    This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may
    rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters
    into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and
    call upon him to join you in joyous anthems,
    were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony .
    What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of
    July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more
    than all other days in the year, the gross injustice
    and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.

But I have also seen that while African Americans
may be far less prone to patriotism than most other
Americans, and whatever skepticism may exist, they
are far more patriotic than any other black minority
I have ever seen and, I would argue, far more
patriotic than white Britons. Just as Martin Luther
King's dream was "deeply rooted in the American
dream", so the African-American challenge to the
national polity has long been for it to live up to its
promise, rather than to live down its past.

So, when the fireworks are set off and the anthem is
sung, do I tell my son to do like his peers and put
his hand on his heart and sing along? When the
flags are handed out, will I encourage him to take
one? When he asks to hang one from the front door
will I wince?

Or will I just be relieved that -- unlike me -- he has
never had to experience the automatic dislocation
between race and place, in the knowledge that none
will see any incongruity between the colour of his
skin and the crest on his passport. Given that most
Americans of his generation are not white, he'll grow
up in a country where minority is a purely political
designation, not a demographic one. True, as a
black boy, his odds of going to prison will be higher
than those of his going to university. But the bottom
line is that whatever he thinks of America or being
an American, he will never feel like a guest in his
own home.

He will never be in any doubt that he is American.
Nor will other Americans. And that's saying
something.

* Gary Younge's latest book, Who Are We -- And
Should it Matter in the 21st Century?, is published
by Nation Books in the US and by Penguin in
England. Follow Gary on Twitter @garyyounge

___________________________________________

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