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Black Americans Reflect On Patriotism, July 4th Holiday Amid National Racial Unrest

NOEL KING, HOST:

This Saturday is the Fourth of July. It's a day when a lot of us reflect on the promises of this country. But right now, we're confronting the fact that those promises are not equally fulfilled. NPR's Juana Summers had a series of conversations with Black Americans to ask what patriotism means to them.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: If you're Black and you're patriotic, how do you reconcile experiences of systemic racism and discrimination with pride in your country?

BRANDON HAMPTON: Patriotism, for me, it's loaded.

KATHY WATSON: I'm a proud American. I stand for the national anthem, always have.

TREVOR SMITH: How the pledge ends, right? Like, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. And then you grow up. And you realize, oh, it never has meant for all.

HAMPTON: I'm proud to be an American. I'm not always proud of what America does.

MONICA MOORE: I love this country because it's my home. And love means holding it accountable.

JONATHAN HORTON: All of the protests, all of the activism, I think that's patriotic.

SUMMERS: The voices you just heard were Brandon Hampton (ph) in Atlanta, Kathy Watson (ph) in Annapolis, Md., Trevor Smith (ph) in New York, Monica Moore (ph) in Chicago and Jonathan Horton in Pasadena, Calif. They were among the more than a dozen Black people from different backgrounds who we asked about this topic.

FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: If anywhere you find just how heterogeneous Black Americans are, it's around this question of patriotism.

SUMMERS: Farah Jasmine Griffin is the chair of the African American and African Diaspora Studies Department at Columbia University in New York.

GRIFFIN: You have African Americans who are definitely patriotic, but not uncritically so. And then you have others who find a problem with the very notion of patriotism. And I think that that's always been a ongoing and consistent tension.

SUMMERS: Armen Bragg (ph) is 75 and was active in the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Ala. He sees little reason for Black people to celebrate on July Fourth.

ARMEN BRAGG: I think a lot of the young people are going to wear Black on the Fourth of July. They're not going to wear the red, white and blue.

SUMMERS: As he's watched protests sparked by police brutality and racism spread across the country, he wonders how much has changed since the 1960s.

BRAGG: You know, there's not a better song to listen to than the national anthem. It can, at times, give you goosebumps. But knowing what's happening in the country, we don't have these patriotic desires as we used to have even when we were dealing with segregation.

SUMMERS: Timothy Berry says that one of the reasons he went to the military academy West Point was because of patriotism. Berry was West Point's class president in 2013. He says that for him, patriotism is not a performance act.

TIMOTHY BERRY: I have always had profound appreciation for what this country has says its ideals are. But being a Black American, being one that - particularly, one that served in uniform, I quickly realized that there was just a lot of contradictions in that. And I felt that it was not just, like, an obligation of me to, like, serve in, like, the capacity that I could, but also just to hold the country accountable for some of its shortcomings.

SUMMERS: Over the last few years, Rebecca Brevard (ph) started questioning some of the things she learned growing up in a biracial family about what it meant to love your country.

REBECCA BREVARD: Patriotism growing up in my family was a really big thing - military background. Serving your country was really important. And the sacrifices that soldiers made was really emphasized. And then, on the other hand, we would talk about, like, the civil rights movement. But the two never combined.

SUMMERS: One thing that came up repeatedly, including in our conversation with Brandon Hampton, was the idea of family.

HAMPTON: When you love something, you demand better from it. That's good parenting, you know? If you love your child, you don't look at everything your child does and say, oh, that's great. At some point, you are going to have to teach them a lesson or instill a value in them that they haven't been expressing that you think that they should have as an adult. You have to correct that behavior. And, I think, if you love the country, you find a way to correct the behavior.

SUMMERS: And as Armen Bragg in Birmingham put it, one way to change the behavior is to call it out visibly and publicly.

BRAGG: I'm from the school of Colin Kaepernick. And I believe in kneeling on one knee to protest what's going on in this country.

SUMMERS: Many people, including the Reverend Frantz Whitfield in Waterloo, Iowa, describe the challenge of feeling attachment to an imperfect country, where progress has been both halting and uneven.

FRANTZ WHITFIELD: As a Black man, I really don't take pride in the independence of a country where I feel, in the year 2020, I have to talk about police reform. I celebrate the history of my culture, my ancestors who sacrificed so much for me to have a somewhat comfortable life.

SUMMERS: Instead of celebrating July Fourth, Whitfield is thinking about July 5, the day in 1852 when Frederick Douglass delivered a speech in which he said, this Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.

Juana Summers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.