Friday, 6 July 2012

The Fourth of July and my American son

For me, a black Briton, patriotism has always been problematic. But for my US-born son, the American dream has real meaning.

During my first week in the US, I went to the Mall in Washington, DC for the Fourth of July. With flags billowing and picnic baskets disgorging, I remember hearing John Wayne's voice, over a loudspeaker, extolling the nation's innate virtues, followed by a huge cheer. Within half an hour, he was joined by some Martin Luther King championing, once again greeted by applause. I admit I was confused. Which America were they rooting for? The gun-toting, swashbuckling land of the settler or the non-violent home to the struggle for equality. Or was there more than one?

This is what I've always found both impressive and enraging about American patriotism. I love its flexibility. Every race, ethnicity and religion found a place for themselves in the national story. But that story all too often slips from a celebration of shared citizenship to a proclamation of genius – as though being an American is, in itself, a higher form of human being.

This has always struck me as a virus that can find its home in any political body. For many, being American is understood not as a starting point from which a greater understanding of the world might be achieved, but an end point, after which the rest of the world ceases to exist. Badges and placards announcing that "Peace is an American value" or that the war in Iraq was somehow "un-American" make me every bit as uncomfortable as the more traditional bellicose and belligerent jingoism. In my experience, sentences that start, "As an American …" rarely end well.

In Britain, patriotism is an altogether rather embarrassing and more rigid affair. Generally speaking, flags and anthems are for sporting events, royal weddings, Jubilees and nationalists – all of which in some way hanker for former glory. I don't begrudge the joy of thousands who braved the rain to watch the flotilla of boats float along the Thames last month, but I don't share it and have never found a way to relate to it. British patriotism, it seems, exists not so much as love for your country, but for its past. We are great, goes the logic, because we were better. Hence the football chant when Britain plays Germany – "two world wars and one world cup"; reaching back almost 50 years for some sense of cultural superiority.

As such, British identity – and this goes for most other European national identities – has long suffered from the illusion not of genius going forward, but purity going backwards. Being British, in the minds of many, is not a work in progress but an artefact inherited from the past. As a black Briton whose parents came to the UK from Barbados in the early 1960s, this is the kind of nation-love I can do without. It harks back to a time before I existed and celebrates it because I wasn't there.

Britain doesn't have an independence day; it simply looks askance as most of the rest of the world celebrates independence from it. For me, growing up, it felt that there was no way to become British. It was an identity you either accepted wholesale or did without. I did without. So, I have long looked upon the Fourth of July with twinge of envy. If there must be nation states, then I would rather there be a national identity I can relate to. If I'm going to pay taxes, I might as well get the badge.

I now have an American son. Over the five years since he was born, I have made my peace with the fact that I will eventually lose him to a vaguely familiar world of little league, dental braces and phonetic spelling. But the notion that I may also have to give him up to the unwieldy beast of American identity is far more tricky. Not only have I never been a patriot. Before I came to the US, I'd actively avoided them. So how to make sense of the fact that I might be raising one?

I have seen that while African Americans may be far less prone to patriotism than most other Americans, and whatever skepticism may exist, they are far more patriotic than any other black minority I have ever seen and, I would argue, far more patriotic than white Britons. Just as Martin Luther King's dream was "deeply rooted in the American dream", so the African-American challenge to the nation has long been for it to live up to its promise, rather than to live down its past.

So, when the fireworks are set off and the anthem is sung, do I tell my son to do like his peers and put his hand on his heart and sing along? When the flags are handed out, will I encourage him to take one? When he asks to hang one from the front door will I wince? Or will I just be relieved that – unlike me – he has never had to experience the automatic dislocation between race and place, in the knowledge that none will see any incongruity between the colour of his skin and the crest on his passport. Given that most Americans of his generation are not white, he'll grow up in a country where minority is a purely political designation, not a demographic one. True, as a black boy, his odds of going to prison will be higher than those of his going to university. But whatever he thinks of America or being an American, he will never feel like a guest in his own home. He will never be in any doubt that he is American. Nor will other Americans. And that's saying something.


Gary Younge's latest book, Who Are We – And Should it Matter in the 21st Century?, is published by Penguin in England.

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