Like many who are identifiably African-American, my feelings of patriotism are complicated. When I heard General Colin Powell say on a recent “Meet the Press” appearance that some prominent members of his own Republican party “still sort of look down on minorities,” referencing a former governor’s statement that President Obama “is shuckin’ and jivin’” and the “Birther” movement spreading falsehoods about the president’s citizenship, I pause and question what is going on in this country.
In passing, Powell also chided former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for his now-famous dismissal of 47 percent of population as takers who refuse to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” When I heard Romney’s dismissal of the 47 percent, a sizeable number of whom are minorities who Romney presumed wouldn’t be voting for him, I similarly had to question how far we have come as a nation.
Yet the words of the late Daniel “Chappie” James, a Tuskegee Airman and the first African-American to attain the rank of four-star general in the Air Force, continue to ring in my ears. Enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1993, his bio on the Hall of Fame’s website quotes an essay he wrote in 1967 after he was awarded the George Washington Freedom Medal.
In the essay, James wrote that despite this nation’s sordid legacy of racial discrimination, “This is my country and I believe in her, and I believe in her flag, and I’ll defend her, and I’ll fight for her and serve her. If she has any ills, I’ll stand by her and hold her hand until in God’s given time, through her wisdom and her consideration for the welfare of the entire nation, things are made right again.’”
And so it is “Chappie” James in the past and Barack Obama in the present who remind me that those sowing seeds of discord and division among “We the People” do not have sole rights to what defines America.
However, part of me hoped that Romney was alone in his expressed disdain for almost half of the U.S. population. Yet some prominent conservative voices doubled-down on Romney’s “47 percent” commentary in the wake of Obama’s victory at the polls, making statements indicating that the America they have come to know and love has been irreparably damaged by the “takers” who propelled Obama to victory. In his second inaugural address today, Obama addressed these critics directly.
“We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
Once again, in his inauguration speech today, Obama appealed to what unites us as Americans, expressing the vision of harmony among people of all creeds and colors expressed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the holiday that bears his name.
“Each time we gather to inaugurate a president we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names.
“What makes us exceptional — what makes us American — is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.'”
Though numerous reports indicated that the crowd for Obama’s second inaugural would perhaps be less than half of the 1.8 million who braved the bone-chilling cold in 2009, I could discern no dramatic drop-off from my vantage point under Obama’s lectern. Throngs were cheering the president as far as my eye could see, punctuated by the Washington Monument as a backdrop.
It is not just Obama’s compelling biography but it is his consistently patriotic rhetoric — encouraging all of us to work to bridge racial and other divides in this nation, urging us to work to leave this nation better than we found it — that inspires so many of his supporters.
“America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it — so long as we seize it together,” Obama said.
Obama also referenced the stalled Dream Act, equating the struggle of those brought to America undocumented as children and threatened with deportation from the only country they have ever known to the march for equality fought by this nation’s civil rights pioneers.
“Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity — until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.”
One of my fondest memories of Obama’s first inaugural was standing on the National Mall waiting for the proceedings to begin as portions of the prior day’s pre-inaugural concert flashed on the big screen above me. I found myself surprisingly engaged in Pete Seeger’s moving rendition of “This Land Is Your Land.” As I hummed along, I started to ponder. Can we as African-Americans, children of ancestors stolen from Africa and brought to this land in chains, claim this land as our land? Can we say along with “Chappie” James, “This is my country and I believe in her, and I believe in her flag, and I’ll defend her, and I’ll fight for her and serve her?” In the famous words of our president, yes, we can.