I feel a sense of pride when I look at the American flag, but my pride, my patriotism, does not end or begin with the flag. No, it runs deeper and is more nuanced than pledging allegiance to the fifty stars and thirteen stripes emblazoned upon our flag. You see, I feel that same sense of pride, that same American pride, when I see a football player kneel during the anthem because he is discontent with the state of affairs in America in 2017. I feel pride because I know that more than anything else, he wishes to evoke conversation, and more importantly, enact change that moves America forward, that gets us closer to being a more perfect Union. It is not any different than the sense of pride I feel whenever I read about the patriots who poured tea into a harbor, who fought for and helped to birth this nation, the ones who have lost their lives in service of its defense on foreign shores, or the various minorities and women who have fought for equal rights and progress throughout our history within our own borders.
Our history, the history of the American people, is rich with patriots of every hue, race, religious denomination, familial origin, sexual orientation, and gender identification. Some of them carried muskets, others carried roses, some fought in wars, while others marched for peace, some marched across bridges, others sat in the front of the bus, some stood up and walked out, while others sat down and refused to leave, some raised a fist up, and yes, some kneeled down.
They are all patriots, none elevated above the other. For all of them were dedicated to this country as much as their individual causes. Though personal their protests may have been, their cause has always been common. They have, above all else, asked nothing more of this country and its citizens, than to live up to and protect the promises laid forth in our founding documents. They are all patriots in the most revered and respectable sense of the word.
Their allegiance is to a better, kinder, more perfect America. Their hopes are common, for at the end of their lives, they wish that the America they bestow to future generations is one that lives up to its ideals, that does not shrink from its messy history, but instead embraces the lessons learned through the battles waged in its common defense. They hope for an America that is not divisive, but united. One that is not divided along lines of race or creed or color, but instead united and enriched by the beautiful diversity of its citizens and protected by their steadfast dedication to the perpetuation of our union as Americans.
You see patriotism is personal. It is not, nor should it be, some uniform blanket of American warmth we all wrap ourselves in. It is defined not by anyone else, but instead ourselves. It varies from one person to the next. Some wear it on their sleeve, others hold it deep inside. Sometimes we hang a flag from our house, or a yellow ribbon on our tree. Some of us might have a bumper sticker that says we are, “proud to be an American”, others may not. Some of us may never say a critical thing about America and feel that is the best way we can show our patriotism, and for that person, that may be true. While for others, the most patriotic expression may be to protest what they view as injustice or opportunities for America to show a greater commitment to its founding principles.
Personally I wear it on my wrist, with a tattoo that says, “Liberty.” To some that may be lame, but patriotism is personal. For me, my tattoo is an everyday reminder of the freedom I was granted by being born an American citizen. It reminds me every day that I am entitled to the maximum amount of freedom I wish to embrace so long as the expression of my own liberty does not unduly infringe upon that of any other American. My liberty is written into our founding documents, just as is yours. It is not intended to be dictated or defined by anyone else, than us, the people who are granted the freedom to express it.
Which is something I feel like is lost upon our president when he criticizes and singles out certain individuals and organizations, when he casts some people as “fine Americans” and others as “sons of bitches” when they partake in the time honored tradition of protesting in America. Patriotism is devalued when he respects the rights of some protesters more than others. It is diminished, when he seeks to divide us along old fault lines with worn out dogmas and disproved stereotypes. It is damaged, when he fails to realize that by the very nature of our birth, as citizens of the United States, we are entitled to the right of free speech, and therefore, protest. We are entitled to express ourselves freely. We are entitled to protest.
A man who kneels to raise awareness about injustice, a woman who remains seated to fight inequality, a preacher who marches to help ensure that the, “moral arc of the universe…bends towards justice,” is no less an American than one who serves in the military, or a teacher who pledges allegiance to a flag, or a president who resides in the White House. There are no litmus tests for what patriotism should or should not be in America. It is defined by us. Whether you are born an American, or you become naturalized as an American, that means you have the right not just to be patriotic, but to define patriotism however you see fit no matter what the leader of your country says. That’s a beautiful thing, because sometimes the most patriotic thing you can do is stand up and salute the flag, yet at other times, the most patriotic thing you can do, is take a knee.