Savage Patriotism: Being Black and Native on the Fourth of July

It’s my first Fourth of July away from home. Home being a tiny township in the middle of New Mexico, about a twenty minute ride from the Navajo Reservation where I was born. To me, Independence Day has always been one of those holidays celebrated with a vague understanding of its origins. I grew up not questioning why we’d light explosives in the middle of the desert during the driest month of the year, eat hot dogs and wear tacky red white and blue tie-dye t-shirts from Walmart. As a rule of thumb, I tend to not question celebrations that make hot dogs readily available, but my mother is Navajo and my father is Black and the more I learn about the “founding” of this country on my ancestors’ land and with their forced labor, the harder it is to accept the celebration.

It gets difficult separating pre and post 9/11 nationalism because the latter made up the most of my childhood, but little things remind me there was a shift. I was in the first grade and late to school September 11, 2001. Later in the week we colored American flags and I can’t remember a day without  “United We Stand” posters hanging in restaurant windows and small American flags leaning out of pen cups in offices afterward.  My paternal grandparents were Jehovah’s Witnesses and told me to refrain from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance [as they regarded it as a form of false idol worship], but my teacher threatened to send me to the office if I didn’t start participating later in the year. I complied.

Neighbors eventually neglected to replace their American flags and posters until they became tattered and faded. Since then, something occasionally brings out this brand of nationalism that “unites” Americans like the death of Osama bin Laden, the World Cup, or the Fourth of July. It’s characterized by rowdy U-S-A chants, a shirtless guy with the American flag draped around his shoulders, and #TeamUSA. The Internet age has made a parody of it — turning it into an amalgamation of “Murica!”  Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and “Back to Back World War Champs” tank tops. Somewhere along the way Americans started taking pride in stereotypes that they’re arrogant and use brute force to get what they want. This might have started this out as a joke, but it quickly became a genuine way to express patriotism. And it makes sense to me in a way — 9/11 invoked confusion, anger and sadness and Americans coped with these feelings together, fostering a unique sense of pride and unity in the process.

When I don’t express the same enthusiasm for this country that many Americans have, often the attitude I’m given suggests I should be grateful for the sacrifices service people have made because in some way, their fighting has allowed me to at least live in my homelands (under American occupation). After all, Ira Hayes (Pima) is in the iconic photo of the raising of the flag in Iwo Jima and Navajo Code Talkers were vital to eliciting Japanese surrender in the Pacific. The first casualty of the Revolutionary War was Crispus Attucks, a Black and Wampanoag man. Native Americans have the highest enrollment rate in the military of any ethnic group in the U.S. with Black people not far behind. If so many people like me have defended this country and perhaps managed to find a love for it, why does the Fourth make me uncomfortable?

There’s something about the frequent contrast between the poverty on the rez and immaculate Ivy League buildings as I travel between home and college that rubs me the wrong way. It’s hard for me to celebrate the past when I live with its most visible and unrelenting consequences. Most people have an axe to grind with mainstream American culture or government. But the way I see it as a Native person, the American government wasn’t supposed to be here to begin with. How can I celebrate this country declaring its independence from a power that had no right to be here anyway? And as a Black person, how do I celebrate a country that declared all men are created equal while it enslaved my ancestors? How can I feel united with a country that continues to not acknowledge my existence yet arrogantly tells me to appreciate “freedom is not free”?

“Freedom” cost my ancestors their bodies and mental health at war for a country that continues to not acknowledge their humanity or mine. On the Fourth, Americans celebrate the “founding” of a country where my Navajo relatives lack running water and electricity on the reservation. A country where my unarmed father may be gunned down by the police for looking suspicious. I never signed up for this “freedom”: the cost was simply deducted from my account without my permission.

Time after time I’ve tried to find love for this country, only to come up with handfuls of indifference or profound sadness or only a sense of pride in being Black and Navajo. I’m still processing my own feelings of confusion, anger, and sadness over slavery and genocide. If anything, others’ nationalism and the Fourth itself inspire my own wishful thinking that perhaps in my lifetime I might live in a country that fully acknowledges my ancestors’ histories and humanity. Perhaps one day I’ll find a sense of unity and better excuse to eat hot dogs.

  1. Interesting read. I grew up in Africa but my mother is African American. I was born in the US, however as time as passed I don’t feel America embraces any marginalized community, only includes them in American-hood when collective nationalism seems important. Most other times it can be a country very disembodied from one another, particularly its history of which I am somewhat aware.

    One of my closest friends in native and considering some of her sentiments, and now yours just makes all the fireworks and celebrations seem in poor taste. However, I also think most people are on automatic drive, taking it as an excuse to have a festive day.

    I’m not so sure they are connected to the original intent of the celebrations (maybe patriot rednecks do)?

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