WHY do we not label white folks as ‘separatist’ and ‘divisive’ for adopting ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, a poem written by a white man, as the national anthem? Why, despite the fact that lines like “the land of the free and the home of the brave?” ignore and erase the realities of people of color in the US, sidestep the inconvenient truth that the star-spangled banner waves over the genocide and dispossession of First Nations people, is the song wordlessly embraced as capturing the ‘true’ spirit of America? Why is a song written by and for white people entrenched in American consciousness as the national anthem, when a song written by and for black people is accused of peddling divisive racial politics?
Dare I suggest, dear post-racial America, that the United States is first and primarily understood as a country of white folks, into which the rest of us are grudgingly permitted entry based on our ‘merit’?
I’m not discrediting Prof. Askew’s scholarship or his cognizance of his people’s history. In fact, I think this was also an instance of a media outlet trying to push the ridiculous ‘color-blind-we’re-all-the-
Predictably, the comments section of the CNN article abounds with complaints of whites being shortchanged because federal money is ‘set aside’ for minorities, and appeals of ‘can we please just stop talking about race?’.
The article ends with this quote from Prof. Askew “I know people will probably think that I’m a sellout, but I think it is important that African-Americans nationally understand that we should be moving towards racial cohesiveness.”
This would be all well and good. Except that POC aren’t the ones standing in the way of ‘racial cohesiveness’, whatever the hell that means. What exactly does ‘racial cohesiveness’ look like for Askew? Is it POC becoming absorbed under the genocidal banner of white American expansionist history, so that we forget struggles for racial and economic justice that were led by POC and founded upon a critique of the nation-state as a tool of oppression? Should we just forget the rich history of struggle in the US by POC and their allies against white supremacist capitalism, struggles premised on challenging the dominant ideology of home and country, struggles in fact inspired by and linked to the struggles of POC and Indigenous people WORLDWIDE against US-European imperialism?
The article also quotes conservative African-American blogger Kenneth Durden as saying “He (Dr. King) was a patriot and he never wanted blacks to deny or separate themselves from being American”. I don’t profess to know the minutiae of Dr. King’s thoughts on nationalism/ patriotism, but I do know that he was deeply moved by his travels to India and the poverty he witnessed. I know that he insisted on challenging the US involvement in Vietnam, when many counseled him to abandon this ‘unpopular’ position. Clearly, he had some inkling of the interconnectedness of social justice issues. What if, as Askew and Durden seem to want, we woke up tomorrow to find all POC in the US suddenly absorbed into its institutions, as many POC CEOs, as many POC politicians, as many POC generals and government contractors? The struggle would be over, right? POC can enthusiastically wave the star spangled banner over their slice of the American dream, and have equal share in the neo-imperialism and rampant capitalism of the US military industrial complex. Right?
Somehow, I don’t think that’s quite what Dr. King had in mind.
I have never been comfortable with the way patriotism and nationalism is popularly constructed. Too often, they sit smack in the intersections of masculinity, power, xenophobia, sexism and religious fundamentalism. In my own country, Sri Lanka, political pundits have often hijacked our national discourse into one of Sinhala supremacy and colonial-era posturing. I have run into arguments with many Sinhala people who informed me that if I really loved Sri Lanka, I would stop ‘siding’ with the UN against our government and stop all the ridiculous talk about investigating war crimes and genocide.
So what does this mean for me, a transnational Sinhalese woman fiercely aligned with womanist decolonization?
Well, it DOESN’T mean I don’t feel a tug-in-the-belly love for Sri Lanka, too deep for tears, comforted by the timeless green of coconut trees. It doesn’t mean I don’t get as excited and rowdy as the next fan when our team takes home a cricket championship. It doesn’t mean I don’t feel, after years away, a palpable longing to breathe the air and taste the water of the place I was born in.
It’s hard to love your country in a world where borders are drawn like battle lines in the ground, and the binary of ‘us versus them’ is constantly upheld, repackaged and enforced as the only way to be patriotic. It’s hard to embrace your nationality and citizenship, when you see that its construction has been at the expense and dispossession of millions of others. Even as I write this blog entry, there are thousands of civilians from Jaffna, classified as IDPs (internally displaced persons), living in government camps where they can’t even piss and shit without being watched over by an armed soldier. What does patriotism mean to them, faced with the prospect of never returning to their homes? I can and will wax eloquent about Sri Lanka matha (Mother Lanka): about the hand-sown, luminescent rice paddies, the saris bright as butterfly wings, our incorrigibly close-knit families, our love of food and drink and community. But I will also hold myself accountable to those people for who Mother Lanka is, at best, a desperate vision in a waning dream. To borrow from a speech by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, because there is no ‘one story’ of Sri Lanka, there is also no one way to love it.
The United States is also not a monolith: it , too, is a country of multiple histories, stories and peoples. But all too often, the history of whiteness becomes codified as the only history, with inserts of ‘Black history’ and ‘Asian-American history’ et al for a cosmetic diversity. Even in the discipline of ‘Ethnic Studies’, one encounters the occasional theorist citing ‘America is a nation of immigrants’, thereby invisibilizing the history and sovereignty of First Nations people. The privileges of nationality and citizenship are manifold, and it’s easy to forget, when scrambling for our share of those privileges, that human dignity and freedom should not be contingent on a stamp in your passport, nor should it be geographically located.
The fact that jazz singer Rene Marie was criticized as ‘unpatriotic’ for singing ‘Lift Every Voice’ instead of ‘Star Spangled Banner’ at a mayoral inauguration, is glaring proof that many have a stake in codifying ONE history and identity of the US.
I suspect these ‘patriots’ and those that line their wallets realize that if people finally rejected binary thinking and asserted the complex interrelationship of human existence, they (the elite) would lose their death-grip on the world’s resources. The ruling classes everywhere have a stake in policing national borders and propagating an exclusivist national identity, because fear and hatred divides people and prevents them from uniting for social, racial, and economic justice. If we the people re-construed notions of citizenship and belonging, we would start clamoring for freedoms all over the world, and joining our voices together across the construction of borders and states.
And we can’t have that now, can we?