I have shared previously that I am currently climbing my metaphorical mountain to complete my doctorate. Yesterday, I submitted the draft of my dissertation proposal – a project I had been working on since June. As I am sure many of you have experienced, last night I felt relief and joy with accomplishing one more step along my path; overcoming anxiety, writer’s blocks, family challenges, and work challenges as well as reading and synthesizing theories and perspectives from well over 100 different writer’s and theorists in multiple academic disciplines to begin to clarify my own my own scholarly space. I am also affected by nostalgic memories of my childhood and the encouragement to never stop learning, growing, evolving. I was proud last night to come to greater clarity about my chosen research area: The Epistemology of the Black Patriotic Tradition in America. There’s a lot to unpack in what I’ve just said so let’s take to time to distill what I mean.
Epistemology discusses ways of knowing; you and I know what we know based upon our life experiences and our socialization. Depending on when, how, and where we grew up as well as the elements of our experiences, we each develop a body of perceptions that form our perspectives. Our perspectives are confirmed through our encounters with others which, simply put, forms the foundation of community perspectives which establish group norms, values, and, more interestingly, group biases and prejudices when encountering people with differing group norms and values. We see every day how important group identity is to many, if not all, individuals within our society. In this context, distinctions such as race and gender have often been the socially constructed and problematic challenge within our society. But, as we are also aware, one individual can and often does occupy more than one group identity. Intersectionality or occupying socially constructed categorizations that often disadvantage one group in relation to another also affects American patriotism.
In Achieving our Country, Richard Rorty once said, “national pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement.” I agree that national pride is critically fundamental to our country. Patriotism can be seen as a manifestation of devotion to the concept of nationhood. Think for a minute what patriotism means to you. What images come to mind? The American flag. The 31 words in Pledge of Allegiance. Family members who served in the military or in the foreign service. Monuments commemorating service and sacrifice during times of war. For many of us, significant cultural events mark our perceptions of patriotism like the 9/11 attack in 2001 or maybe even the events on January 6th this year. In other words, once an individual closely identifies with their nation interesting dynamics soon develop which shape their attitudes towards others. My critical observation is that extreme perceptions conflate devotion and fanaticism which undermine rationality when observed through the lens of race. Far from saying patriotism itself is bad – that is not what I am saying – I am saying patriotism untethered from ethical reasoning is the core of epistemic injustice. Confronting epistemic injustice is why I have chosen my scholarly space.
Conceptually, a starting point for understanding how Black Americans have wrestled with the conflict between loving this country while also dealing with the reality of our racialized experiences is analyzing how Frederick Douglass’ perceptions of America evolved within the context of the abolitionist movement. Douglass, a formerly enslaved man, evolved from “claiming that he had no country and in particular that the U.S. was not his country…to claim that he had a country, and that the U.S. was that country; from claiming he was not a patriot…to claim that he was a patriot; from claiming that he did not love the U.S….to claim that he did love the U.S.” (quoted from Dr. Bernard Boxill’s 2009 analysis, p. 303). Douglass’ evolving perceptions were shaped by his discussions with other abolitionists and centered on his interpretation of the U.S. Constitution – whether the fundamental essence of this document provided justification for tragically enslaving millions of people or whether the essence of the constitution truly supported equality for all. Reality and the aspirational space of hope is where Black people have been philosophically and emotionally located since 1619. While the events of 1776 are considered by many in America as the genesis of American patriotic canon, I believe a much wider lens is necessary to illustrate patriotism is experienced differently by the Black community. Clearly, by the time Douglass escaped from his tormenters in 1838, slavery had been in North America for over 200 years. Slavery’s reality and the aspirations of the descendants of those who were once enslaved are conceptually intertwined within the philosophical and emotional relationship between Black people and America; to love this country is to deal with the truth about race. Within the divide between reality and hope, scholarly conversations about American patriotism that center the complex experiences of Black people have been relatively few but, nonetheless, illustrate a stark picture of patriotism in America. This is why I have chosen to analyze Black patriotic tradition.