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The Seeds of a Strong Democratic America

October 21, 2001|ROGER WILKINS | Roger Wilkins is a professor of history and American culture at George Mason University and the author of "Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism."

FAIRFAX, Va. — On the second weekend after the mass murders at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, my wife and I headed east from Washington to spend a couple of days by the ocean. As we drove through a flat green countryside accented by coastal waters, we saw rural Maryland and Delaware answering the terrorists. Flags were everywhere: new flags, huge flags, old flags, tattered flags, faded flags and little bumper-sticker flags pasted on mailboxes. The most moving flags were those flown on or around the houses where the workers and the farmers of the Delmarva Peninsula make their homes. These houses reflect the work-hardened hands that built and maintain them. They are small houses, for the most part, and many of them are white and show age and hard wear.

Near the shore, in the town of Ocean View, Del., I had my first real belly laugh since Sept. 11. A sign outside a conspicuously flagless store read:

"Shame on you.

Be patriotic.

Return my flag.

God Bless America."

The warmth of that moment--mirth suffused with a rich and textured feeling of connectedness with these elemental Americans--was absolutely new to me. I felt an unalloyed patriotism for the very first time in my 69 years of life as a black American.

That full, rich, unsustainable patriotic high made me begin to contemplate what we citizens of America will need to do over the long years and complex struggles of this crisis: What should follow the flag-waving, blood donations and charity? How can we use these wonderful patriotic highs to serve our country? To answer that, I had to go back over the path that had enabled me to come to this unrestrained feeling of patriotism in the first place.

My ardor has erupted with the crisis, but the patriotism itself grew out of long years of wrestling with the notion of blacks and patriotism, of wrestling, as a historian, with my parallel interests in the founding of America and in the roles blacks filled in the new country. I felt a profound ambivalence about our nation and its historic abuses, about its continuing refusal to accept fully responsibility for the consequences of that history. And like all blacks in America, I bore the weight of personal racial wounds on my soul.

When I was taught history, the American story was a white story with the humanity and contributions of blacks scarcely, if ever, recognized. The simple message was that America was a white country, and blacks were an unfortunate historical accident whose impact on the nation had to be minimized. Slavery was presented in a way to make whites feel magnanimous and blacks feel ashamed.

I was a boy in the 1940s, and watched as America went to war with a segregated army. In the telling of the stories of that war, all the heroes were white, as were all the beauties they loved. Pictures of Ku Klux Klan marches beneath massed American flags and celluloid images of blacks as fat, dumb mammies were also seared into my mind at an early age. And I've been told plenty of times by white Americans to "go back to where you belong." There was no alternative but to resist, to reject the flag-waving patriotism the Klan claimed to embrace.

In due course that struggle led me to the offices of Thurgood Marshall, who became a mentor and lifelong friend. In contemplating his life and lessons, I realized that he was a patriot, and I came to understand that he was struggling as an American to save the very soul of this country.

Over the years, as I worked and read, I developed a profound respect for the deep and lasting marks black people had made on America from its earliest moments and for the profound humanity they had displayed over the centuries in the face of cruelty and the theft of hope and labor. I also understood that from the time before there was an America, there were white people who had dissented from the common consensus and who had fought for black people. The heroic lives of the blacks and whites who worked to change the country--largely ignored in conventional histories up to 1970--constitute one of the most honorable streams of American history. The people who engaged in those struggles, particularly my slave ancestors, had surely made America mine. They had also created an obligation for me to carry forward the work of enlarging justice in the country. Finally, I came to understand that my best weapons in honoring that obligation were the basic laws of the nation and the idealistic spirit with which they were infused--produced in substantial measure by founders of the nation who owned and were supported by slaves all their lives. I now understand that I needed both my Mississippi slave ancestors and slave owners like Washington and Jefferson to become who I am today.

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