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Jewish World Review July 5 2001 / 14 Tamuz, 5761

Clarence Page

Clarence Page
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Can blacks be patriotic?
Should they be? -- A TENNESSEE state legislator recently gained national fame - and infamy - by refusing to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance before session.

Rep. Henri Brooks, a black Memphis Democrat, said, "I can't pledge allegiance to a flag that represents the former colonies that enslaved our ancestors."

She's not alone. Many African-Americans feel an odd disconnection around the flag, the Fourth of July and other expressions of patriotism to a country founded in significant part by, oh, yes, slaveholders. And what about that "liberty and justice for all" part of the pledge. Many think, as Brooks says, that it's a lie in this era of racial profiling.

As a fellow descendant of slaves - and an Army veteran - I disagree, although I respect the right of Brooks and other protesters to peacefully express their views. In fact, the right to express controversial opinions peacefully without risk of being arrested is as good a reason as any to respect our flag and the republic for which it stands.

With that in mind, I see protests like Brooks' as a form of back-handed patriotism. Their right to protest amply demonstrates a big reason why many more people are trying to get into this country than trying to get out.

Still, I think Brooks misses a significant point. The pledge is not a declaration of existing reality. It is an expression of one's commitment to a goal worth achieving.

Sure, this country has yet to achieve perfection in the liberty and justice department, but we're working on it. I see the pledge as a promise to keep working on it.

Further, I resent the implication that patriotism cannot really be, to coin a popular implication-loaded phrase, "a black thing." African-Americans have fought and sacrificed themselves in every American war - even under the command of that slaveholder George Washington. If anybody has reason to be patriotic, it is us. Our ancestors invested too much of their blood in this country for us to walk away from it now.

The finest accomplishment of the Founders was to invent not only a new country but also the mechanism for its improvement. The most patriotic act we can make is not to worship our country but to constantly try to improve it.

That was Justice Thurgood Marshall's reason for his controversial refusal to celebrate the bicentennial of this country's original Constitution in 1987. As a civil rights pioneer and the first black member of the U.S. Supreme Court, he called it a "flawed document," yet also praised it for containing the mechanism for its own improvement. Therefore, he said, he would celebrate only the amended Constitution, which includes, among other gems, the Bill of Rights.

That nuanced approach is appreciated by at least one of Marshall's protégés, Roger Wilkins, a prize-winning journalist, civil rights attorney and history professor at George Mason University. Wilkins also has puzzled over the Founders' slavery paradox, he says, ever since a tour of Mount Vernon about 30 years ago with one of his daughters. When she found out that Washington owned slaves, she asked loud enough for everyone nearby to hear, "What's so great about him?"

In the awkward silence that followed, Wilkins asked questions that he tries to answer decades later in a new book, "Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism.""

He examines four slave-holding Founders from Virginia: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Mason, a lesser-known figure whose slave ownership did not prevent him from vigorously opposing the institution and helping to create the Bill of Rights.

With a sense of genuine curiosity, Wilkins tries to avoid either condemning the Founders too easily by modern standards or excusing too easily the contradictions of their slave ownership.

Instead, by exploring the culture and atmosphere in which they grew up, he discovered how slavery was an integral part of the Virginia society that enabled them to create the recipe for modern rights, equality and democracy.

"They grew up in a true sense morally deformed by their culture," Wilkins told me in a telephone interview. "But it gave them the leisure to learn and practice politics, the wealth to move around the state and country ... creating institutions and documents they could not have produced had they not been cushioned by slavery."

So, yes, African-Americans have very good reasons to be patriotic about this country. After all, it was built not just by slaveholders but also by black pioneers like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois and Martin Luther King Jr., among many others.

The genius of our slaveholding Founders, then, was in their having the foresight to create documents that had better values than those they practiced. The institutions they created ironically provided the legal framework for the hard-won civil rights victories that would come later.

They also set up a challenge for the people of this nation to never shirk from the task of making liberty and justice a reality for everybody. A flag that stands for those values is worth pledging allegiance to.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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