A few years ago, my neighborhood was trying to define a communal look. Some neighbors already flew the American flag and suggested the flag as our shared identifier, the hallmark to creating visual cohesion. Several other neighbors almost screamed their objection to the American flag, noting that it did not reflect their values.
I was reminded recently of the angst of that neighborhood conversation. First, on the anniversary of September 11, I remembered our country’s collective patriotism back then against a shared enemy who we couldn’t even identify. Flags flew from car antennae and from front porch flag posts, and many were teary-eyed that evening in 2001 as members of Congress sang God Bless America on the steps of the Capitol. We were brought together as proud, united Americans.
The second event that brought back that neighborhood memory was hearing our country didn’t need a history curriculum based on the 1619 Project, but instead one that was “pro-American, celebrating the truth about our nation’s great history.” That sentiment, while purporting to be pro-American was a clear message: a curriculum grounded in an African American reality was anti-American. That message justified the feelings of those neighbors who said the flag didn’t represent their values.
For those unfamiliar with the 1619 Project, in August 2019, the New York Times Magazine published a groundbreaking edition. Every article centered our country’s history on the arrival, 400 years earlier, of 20-30 enslaved Africans. Noted journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones used that seminal event to tell our country’s history, focused on the contributions of African Americans throughout America’s history. Then, partnering with the Pulitzer Center, the 1619 essay was turned into a free curriculum for classroom teachers.
If you read my Daughters of the Dream post last month, you’ll know I have concerns about how our country’s history is taught. Using the 1619 Project as the starting place sounded exactly right to me. I thought it would finally tell the actual truth of our nation’s history. Hannah-Jones starts her opening essay by saying her father always flew the American flag proudly in front of their home. But she didn’t understand how he could love a country she felt had never loved him. But, after a full examination of the country’s history and deep reflection (remember ‘reveal, reflect, recalibrate’), she ends the essay noting: “We were told once, by virtue of our bondage, that we could never be American. But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.” With pride, not only does Hannah-Jones understand her father’s belief in and love for the country, she has proudly staked her own claim as an American. Only to have the essay and project attacked as not ‘pro-American’ by the highest levels of government and prohibited in the duplicitous and Machiavellian wording and language of a presidential executive order.
I know what image comes to mind, for many, when picturing the all-American boy. I think I know what comes to mind, for many, when they think of the American dream.
Try that right now.
What did you think of? Tell the truth.
In your mind’s eye, I don’t think that boy has dreadlocks and brown skin and does not live in that suburban house with the well-manicured lawn.
The “American” narrative, that pro-American truth distortion of our history, is still grounded in white skin and white-centered values. The ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps, equality of opportunity, hard work leads to success’ values that may be American, but they—like the history that has been taught—are not valid for all.
It’s hard for me, and many Black people, to embrace fully the American flag, the flag of a country that doesn’t seem to include us. But I am trying. I want to claim my country and to feel the sense of pride felt in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. I want to work for a racially just America reflective of the words in those patriotic songs and in the country’s founding documents.
And I believe more white people today than in our country’s history are trying to understand the America that Black people see. I believe that more and more are joining with the BIPOC community to work toward a racially just, pro-America reality.
I believe we can create an inclusive America stronger than anything envisioned in the 18th century. One without a solo image representing an idealized all-American boy or girl that excludes the diversity of the nation we’ve become. One where the American dream is not solely defined by a white person—a white family—owning a house. We must determine what a truly democratic economy looks like and how can we— we the people—ensure everyone succeeds in this all-embracing, new America.
I hope one day, maybe soon, we can all proudly wave that flag.
NOTE: If you are interested in learning more about the 1619 Project, there is an online study group meeting 10/1, 10/15, 10/29, 11/12 and 12/10. Here’s the link to register.